Gonkama Johnson, a recent graduate of Summit Academy’s IT training program, works downtown at fast-growing Atomic Data.
Johnson, 30, once jobless and homeless, has filled one of the 9,500 open local IT jobs listed by the Minnesota High Tech Association.
“It’s not just a job,” Johnson said last week. “I’m in a career now. I’m staying humble and on track.”
Johnson had a knack for consumer technology but dropped out of college and foundered in his 20s. He stumbled on the life-and-IT boot camp offered at Summit Academy in partnership with Atomic Data, which also seeks to diversify its workforce.
Johnson describes his new job as a “bouncer for the internet.” He said, “I maintain networks and make sure traffic flows properly … and make sure our client systems are up to date and, if their systems go down, I need to log in and troubleshoot the problem.”
Johnson, who's starting pay is about $40,000 plus benefits, also is the embodiment of one part of the solution to the slow growth of the Minnesota’s workforce.
If current economic and demographic trends hold, the state will have 240,000 unfilled jobs in 2022, more than twice what it has today, said RealTime Talent, an industry-supported research nonprofit working with educators, job trainers and others to focus on solutions.
“In some ways, our workforce is hiding in plain sight,” Steve Grove, the new head of the state Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED), said at a workshop last week.
At the event, sponsored by the high-tech association, Grove spoke about training programs that engage more minorities, who are still hired at lower rates than non-Latino whites.
“It’s a moral issue as well as an economic opportunity,” Grove added.
If Minnesota doesn’t make progress adding trained workers the next several years, the state risks losing out on billions of dollars in future economic growth and the opportunity to put more people in good jobs.
Deb Broberg, executive director of RealTime Talent, said there are three ways Minnesota can fill the 240,000 estimated jobs that will otherwise go unfilled by 2022.
First, increase employment by 65,000 or so jobs by training more moms re-entering the workforce, second-chancers and minorities. Second, attract more people from other states and countries. And third, retrain workers, particularly those in jobs that are replaced by automation.
Twin Cities training programs, such as Summit Academy, Prime Digital Academy’s IT-Ready, the Software Guild and other employer-nonprofit collaborations certified about 1,000 nontraditional IT workers between 2015 and 2017.
By contrast, two- and four-year colleges in the region produce around 1,600 computer science graduates annually.
CEO Jennifer Carlson of Apprenti, which provides industry training and certification programs for underrepresented groups such as minorities, women and veterans, told the conference that the IT industry nationally has about 2.8 million job openings.
Yet, America produces only about 65,000 computer science graduates annually.
Allison Liuzzi of Wilder Research, who studies Minnesota’s demographics, noted that the state already has 79 percent of its adult population working, the second-highest level in the country.
She pointed out that 500,000 of the 3 million jobs in Minnesota’s workforce are tied to STEM fields, or science, technology, engineering and math. Those are among the best-paying in the state.
Grove, who also said DEED is proposing a modest, $9 million package of economic incentives targeted at Minnesota’s technology industry, noted that the Twin Cities boasts about 135,000 tech jobs, a bigger number than in Austin, Texas, which is a smaller urban region but better known as a tech center.
Economic diversity, among agribusiness, finance and technology has proved a diversified-industry blessing over the years.
And those industries increasingly rely on the IT, data management and business analytics that demands IT workers.
Over the last decade I have met many once-unemployed folks who have overcome addiction, criminal histories and despair, who have been empowered and trained to work in offices, as drivers and mechanics, alternative-energy technicians and IT workers.
The economic challenge also represents a tremendous opportunity to get all hands on deck and working in self-sufficient, dignified careers.
Neal St. Anthony has been a Star Tribune business columnist and reporter since 1984. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.