San Antonio Builds Pipeline for Tech Jobs as Local Skills Gap Narrows

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Dominic Medina (left) graduated from Rackspace Open Cloud academy in August 2018, and Ramiro Medina will graduate from the same program in June 2019.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

Dominic Medina (left) graduated from Rackspace Open Cloud Academy in August 2018, and his father Ramiro Medina will graduate from the same program in June 2019.

For every five IT job postings in San Antonio, only one is filled, according to a recent report, despite an uptick in graduates with tech-related degrees produced by local schools.

The city’s supply of cybersecurity professionals is regularly touted as one of the highest in the nation, but that ratio has worsened since the same period last year, when about 43 percent of local tech-related openings were filled. San Antonio has the equivalent of an 80 percent skills gap in tech jobs.

The report was prepared by SA Works, an area workforce development organization, and the San Antonio Economic Development Foundation (SAEDF), an economic development agency. Sean Attwood, SAEDF’s senior director of workforce management, said the report estimates there are almost 34,000 local workers in the IT fields.

“I think San Antonio has done a great job in the past several years of positioning themselves to prepare a future workforce for these roles in IT and cyber,” he said.

The local agencies are using the data they gather from local employers to inform local schools and workforce programs on the needed skills in the job market. Skills needed in the IT sector, in particular, tend to evolve at a faster rate than in other career fields, making it a challenge for colleges and universities to update their offerings according to the latest trends in relevant qualifications, Attwood said.

“The speed of obsolescence due to the technological innovation is so fast that in many cases a four-year degree, although it is a great way to pursue higher education, might not be the option for everybody that’s looking to either get into IT or looking to continue to build their skills to stay relevant in IT,” he said.

Richard Valdez, chief technology officer for local cybersecurity firm IPSecure, said cybersecurity has become a field with a perpetual shortage of qualified workers, like nursing and teaching. That’s a concern, but Valdez said San Antonio is still producing more talent than other markets.

“We take for granted how well we’ve done in San Antonio,” he said. “We’ve got it good, but it’s still coming up short. That’s the sad part.”

Attwood said SA Works has partnered with the Alamo Colleges system, which he said can better help address the shorter-term need for specialized talent. State-approved certifications in the IT fields have grown by more than 300 percent, he said. SA Works also looks to emphasize upgrading the skills of the current workforce as part of the partnership.

“I think [partnering with the community college system] is the most powerful job-creation opportunity we’re looking at today,” he said.

From 2013 to 2018, Alamo Colleges graduated about 700 students from information technology programs across its five schools.

“It would be nice if we could produce 700 graduates annually,” Alamo Colleges Chancellor Mike Flores said, noting that it is important to reach out to students before they decide on a degree plan to cultivate an interest in what may be unfamiliar professions.

To do this, Alamo Colleges has partnered with San Antonio Independent School District to start a new cybersecurity-focused high school. Cyber P-TECH (Pathways in Technology Early College High School) at Sam Houston High School will open in the fall to about 100 freshmen, Flores said. The school model allows students to earn a high school diploma, associate degree, certifications, and obtain work-based training in specific career fields in four to six years.

At capacity, the school will serve roughly 500 students, who upon graduation, could directly enter the cybersecurity workforce.

No student is too young to start exploring these relatively new career fields, the chancellor said. South San Antonio ISD recently began discussing the possibility of a Cybersecurity Academy for middle school students at Kazen Middle School, and other districts offer activities like CyberPatriot, a national scholastic contest that focuses on training future cyber defenders.

Cybersecurity firm Jungle Disk will take on 20 interns from SAISD, effectively doubling its workforce for the next three months and establishing a remote workplace within a local high school to accommodate them. The Houston Street-based company also has taken on interns from the local universities; some have become permanent hires.

“Cybersecurity-wise [we are] really happy with the options here to be able to hire at all levels,” Bret Piatt, Jungle Disk CEO, said.

Local universities have not produced as many software engineers. That’s because none of them offer software engineering degrees, said Piatt. Software engineering is one of the most common career paths for computer science majors, but Piatt said regional computer science programs focus more on the theory and design than building hands-on software skills.

Programs like Codeup, a full-time crash course on web development, often fill the void for computer science graduates who have not developed some of the software engineering fundamentals employers expect in their entry-level talent, Piatt said, although keeping pace with in-demand skills is tough when it can take years to vet new course curricula.

A web development class at Codeup.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

A web development class at Codeup helps students without a formal education in software development grasp hireable skills in a condensed schedule.

“The universities are aware of this,” he said. “They understand the differences now between computer science and software engineering as a discipline. I think we’ll see changes in that over the course of the next few years. But if you’re part of the A&M system or the UT system, changing degree programs or adding a new degree program … is not a process that happens overnight.”

Alamo Colleges also tries to cultivate interest with students above the age of 18 through real-world work experience and partnerships with prominent members of industry. Last fall, San Antonio College launched an apprenticeship program that offers students opportunities to work toward an associate degree and certificates.

The program allows participating IT firms to grow their own employees and ensure professional competency, according to the program’s website.

In collaboration with Facebook, Texas A&M University-San Antonio is operating a program with similar goals. Students who perform well in the cybersecurity course can then complete internships with Facebook and have an entry point to talk about job opportunities with the social network company.

To date, six students have completed the Facebook course, and about 35 students are expected to register for the course this fall.

About 300 students are enrolled in the university’s programs related to computer science and computer and information systems, said Jeong Yang, a professor in the computing and cybersecurity department.

Students also can obtain a National Security Agency Cyber Defense Education certificate by taking a set of nine courses. Because the first cohort of freshmen started in fall 2016, TAMU-SA won’t have completion rates or data on graduation until 2020, Yang said.

As time goes on, Yang projects these kinds of studies will only become more relevant.

“Living in technology, a person’s privacy becomes so important, and that’s where the job market is going,” she said.

San Antonio has more nationally recognized cybersecurity programs than 32 states. TAMU-SA, The University of Texas at San Antonio, Our Lady of the Lake University, San Antonio College, and St. Philip’s College are all designated as centers of academic excellence by the National Security Agency and U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

“There are lots of opportunities for students that graduate from any one of our five schools to work in San Antonio,” said Glenn Dietrich, a UTSA cybersecurity professor. A typical grad will make anywhere from $70,000 to $80,000 starting in an entry-level role, such as cybersecurity specialist, he said.

A UTSA student during the 2015 National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition. Photo by Scott Ball.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

A UTSA student competes in the National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition.

Dietrich gave a recent example of an above-average cybersecurity student who got a job offer from a bank for $85,000 a year with a $9,000 signing bonus upon graduating. The student was 22 years old with almost no experience.

UTSA’s cybersecurity program was ranked No. 1 in the nation by the Ponemon Institute in 2014. The program offers a number of different kinds of degrees at the undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral levels. In 2017, San Antonio’s largest educational institution launched the first fully online degree program in cybersecurity, making it more accessible to those in and outside of San Antonio.

In late 2018, UTSA secured funding from the UT System Board of Regents to build the National Security Collaboration Center. The school plans for the center to act as a hub for cybersecurity researchers, faculty, and students, and as a central location for private and government partners working on national defense.

UTSA enrolls roughly 3,500 undergraduate students and 400 graduate students in IT-related programs.

The total number of cybersecurity degrees conferred has risen 700 percent between the 2014-15 academic year when 11 cybersecurity majors graduated, and the 2017-18 year, when the school handed out 88 degrees.

Dietrich said he expects the university to graduate about 150 cybersecurity students this year alone. Even as that number is expected to continue to increase sharply, Dietrich said UTSA cannot produce enough to meet the rising demand for talent.

The San Antonio metropolitan area had a labor shortage in the cybersecurity industry of about 3,283, according to a 2018 analysis by the website CyberSeek, which tallied the number of job openings that went unfilled in the greater San Antonio area.

“There would be no way to fill the … openings we have today,” he said. “The government started a program where it is taking government employees and retraining them into cyber. That should help, but it’s still a significant problem.”

Retraining the workforce

Part of SA Works’ aim is to train veterans transitioning from the military to help improve the civilian shortfall of IT workers, Attwood said. Of the 4,000 service members who exit the military every year, about half say they want to pursue a civilian career, he said. He said two out of every five transitioning veterans have a STEM certification, many of them specializing in an IT field.

The City of San Antonio-funded Project QUEST program trains veterans as well as underrepresented groups for careers in IT, mainly by subsidizing their tuition at local workforce development programs such as Rackspace’s Open Cloud Academy.

Ramiro Medina is a Project QUEST graduate who expects to earn his certificate in cybersecurity and network administration from the Open Cloud Academy on June 14.

Medina, a former Air Force serviceman, got out of the military in 2006 after a yearlong tour in Saudi Arabia. Struggling to find work after his transition into civilian life, he sought a career as a truck driver. Working long and odd hours, he was able to provide for his family, but last year he sustained two herniated discs and could no longer drive an 18-wheeler.

His 18-year-old son Dominic had just graduated from the academy and found an IT support job paying $18 an hour. Dominic has been paying the bills as his father’s worker’s compensation and unemployment benefits have run dry. Now the elder Medina is looking forward to following his son into the IT job market.

“What my son’s making, it took me probably 10 years to make once I graduated high school,” he said.

Rivard Report reporter Shari Biedidger contributed to this article.

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