Experiential Learning Is Key to Advancing the Tech Workforce

A traditional approach to cultivating tech talent is not sufficient to develop a future filled with capable technology leaders. The challenge requires collaboration from industry and educational institutions to properly prepare students.

Technology continues to expand and evolve at breakneck pace, dramatically affecting industry, government, education, and the nonprofit sector.

The information technology field is one of the fastest growing industries in the United States, and offers qualified professionals outstanding employment, income, and career opportunities. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, careers in software development and programming are growing much faster than average with a 17 percent growth rate. Despite a very attractive career path, Human Resource managers and recruiters (nearly 9 in 10), according to a national survey—report it is a challenge to find technical talent today. If the tech industry is so dynamic and thriving, why is it plagued with talent shortages?

First, companies may have unrealistic expectations about the work experience of entry-level job candidates. Not too long ago, companies invested in onsite training to prepare new hires for their assigned roles. This helped entry-level and even more experienced employees acquire technical and soft skills to perform their jobs successfully. Somewhere along the line, these programs disappeared, and employers began to expect job-ready career professionals entering the workforce right out of colleges and universities.

To further compound the tech talent deficit, many companies still rely on traditional practices for attracting entry-level tech employees, using recruiters at college career fairs to scope out talent. This recruitment method is expensive, costing, on average, $3,000 to $5,000 per candidate and with hundreds of applicants. While college fair applicants are plentiful, the sheer volume of candidates limits time to get to know a candidate and makes it virtually impossible to get a detailed view into an applicant’s current technical and/or professional skills. This often leads to the selection of candidates who are not a suitable for the role and/or organization.

Industry Leaders Are Addressing the Tech Skills Gap

Proactive tech companies are not sitting on the sidelines, but instead are tackling the tech skills gap problem head on. Tech leaders at Excella Consulting, a leading provider of Agile technology solutions in Arlington, VA, have stepped forward with work opportunities to prepare entry-level candidates for a career in the tech industry.

Excella Consulting spearheaded an experiential learning initiative through its Extension Center (XC) at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, VA. This is not your typical summer internship. The Extension Center is an immersive, year-round, part-time, paid internship that gives students the opportunity to provide remote software development and support to Excella’s client delivery teams. Under the supervision of experienced developers and consultants, the XC serves Excella’s clients in the federal, commercial, and nonprofit sectors. While part-time during semester, students often transition to full-time summer roles in Blacksburg and Arlington. This learning incubator bridges the classroom and workforce, creating experienced, job-ready IT professionals. Graduates from the XC program join Excella not as “entry-level” but as junior developers, ready to tackle client work on day one.

“Experiential learning and professional development for STEM students is one of my passions,” says Steve Cooper, partner and co-founder, Excella Consulting. “Technology will solve the world’s biggest problems, so the appetite is huge for creative and industrious individuals who aren’t afraid to use their deep skills. We love working with Virginia Tech to shape the next generation of technologists. There’s nothing like real-world work for real clients on real products to develop those skills.”

This public-private partnership between Virginia Tech and Excella Consulting is addressing two problems at once. Employers need well-trained, job-ready tech candidates, and students need applicable work experience and technical skills to land a job.

In his talks to business and student audiences, Cooper frequently cites one key aspect of every exceptional career that he calls the “prospect of real failure.” “Our student-employees know their software is headed for real clients, and that dynamic accelerates learning at light speed.”

Cultivating the next-generation workforce is a participation sport, and industry can no longer sit on the sidelines. Educational institutions and industry need to share responsibility for developing quality entry-level candidates. This means focusing on how we train, mentor, encourage, and develop rising technical professionals, in and out of the classroom.

Experiential Learning for Long-Term Results

“Work experience helps create well-rounded students with important life skills such as communication and teambuilding. It also dramatically improves job readiness and increases placement outcomes for recent graduates,” explains Tim Sands, president of Virginia Tech. “Internship opportunities like those at Excella provide students with hands-on experience, enabling them to blossom and ultimately launch into a professional career.”

Sands notes that practitioners with both technical and social acumen excel in the technology industry, and work experience is a practical solution for developing the necessary qualities for today’s tech professionals.

Experiential learning opportunities attract and shape entry-level professionals while also acting as a workforce development strategy. The XC is a cost-neutral endeavor that creates a reliable talent pipeline ensuring (to some degree) that these professionals will stay and grow within the industry. Following graduation, most students who participated in the XC are hired by Excella or other organizations where their work experience prepares them for their new roles and IT careers.

“At Excella, we’re investing in future IT leaders and professionals. Our innovative Extension Center benefits students, the university, our company, and the tech industry overall by developing today’s high-demand skills by giving students real tech jobs in a real tech office,” Cooper says.

A traditional approach to cultivating tech talent is not sufficient to develop a future filled with capable technology leaders. The challenge requires collaboration from industry and educational institutions to properly prepare students.

The Virginia Tech Extension Center is one way industry and higher education have created a growth environment to address the technical and soft skills that will help prepare students for tech careers and professional success.

Margaret Archer is the director of University Programs at Excella Consulting—a leading provider of Agile technology solutions in Arlington, VA. In this role, Archer oversees the vision, strategy, and leadership recruitment at the Excella Extension Center in Blacksburg, VA. Working directly with staff, faculty, and educational departments at Virginia Tech, she develops partnerships and executes strategies to grow well-rounded candidates in their technology and business acumen. To learn more about Excella Consulting, visit: https://www.excella.com/.

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