Last updated on 09/21/2017

Kickstarting Omaha's growth through a new approach to technology skills training

To compete with other cities in innovation, Omaha will need a fresh approach in training our workforce.
Published by Victor Cassone

Omaha is a growing city that has a slightly above average economy. Most economic indicators say Omaha is performing well. According to Forbes ‘Best Places For Business and Career List’, Omaha is ranked 46th out of the 200 cities.

By all accounts, Omaha is doing good. However, will good remain good enough?

There are many challenges facing Omaha as we move into the future. One of the biggest challenges is making sure Omaha’s workforce is adapting to the technological changes of the world. Omaha needs to be ready for a technology driven future.

Like it or not, we are on the midst of a technological revolution. The industrial revolution created machinery to automate physical labor. The current revolution is automating human thought. The productivity gains from the industrial revolution were massive. The productivity gains from the current revolution will be even larger. Complex and routine tasks alike will be offloaded to smart software and robotics. We are destine for a massive shift in the workforce. The question is, will Omaha’s labor market be ready for this shift?

Most these new jobs will require interacting with or developing software. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of software developers is projected to grow 17 percent by 2024, much faster than the average for all occupations. Omaha is already in short supply of software developers so this growth will only add to the problem.

It’s hard to imagine a thriving city economy without access to technology related talent. Access to technological talent opens up many doors for a city’s economy. It increases efficiency within businesses, allows businesses to provide new services to their customers, and enables startups to build innovative products. All these things help grow the economy and increase tax revenue.

A massive bottleneck for companies in the midwest is a lack of development talent. Unless a start-up has a technical co-founder, it is hard for the cash strapped business to bring on developers. Software developers are in high demand which makes it uncommon for them to take pay cuts to work for a startup. Small to midsize businesses face a similar problem. They have trouble affording software developers unless they bring them on as a novice and train them. Lack of quality software hurts their internal processes as well as the product they are trying to sell.

Small to midsize businesses underperform due to this bottleneck. Potential startups are left as an idea. The city as a whole is hurt because of the missed business opportunities that would help grow the city’s core.

One of the main reasons Silicon Valley is a hotbed for innovation is because of the region's access to top notch software and design talent. They have entrenched software development into their culture. Stanford and other nearby universities output a massive amount software engineers that end up working for startups and established corporations alike.

It’s highly unlikely Omaha will be able to profit from a Stanford like computer science program. Even if we did, we couldn’t guarantee the students would stick around. Larger cities have more lure to top college graduates. They can entice them with higher pay and more innovative companies. In Omaha, only companies on a Fortune 1000 scale can routinely recruit non-local talent because they can afford to pay competitive salaries and offer enormous opportunities.

These top cities and companies have the current system locked down and figured out. If Omaha wants to compete with San Francisco or New York City, then we will need a different approach. We will need to put more effort into training people locally.

I believe the solution is a combination between using trade specific schools for initial training and apprenticeships for further developments. The trade schools would teach people the fundamentals of the job and the apprenticeship would take them to the next level and accelerate their learning.

Finding alternatives to traditional schooling could create a huge advantage for Omaha. Right now, most companies rely on universities to educate and train their workforce. Students spend massive sums of money and time for an education that might not be useful to them.

There are some professions where this type of schooling is necessary. Architectural engineers, doctors, scientists, teachers, etc. are all well suited for a traditional 4 year university. These professions are too high risk and too resource dependent to be done any other way.

Many high demand professions don’t need this type of extensive education, especially in technology. These jobs traditionally included plumbers, carpenters, welders and other physical labor jobs. Over the last few decades, computers have created a new set of skilled labor jobs. These jobs include software development, graphic design, and data science, among others.

When these high tech jobs initially came into existence, it made sense to only hire people who went through a traditional university. In the early days, building a website was really tough and required the developer to understand everything that went into building the site. This is no longer the case. Software tools and online resources have developed to a point where most of the heavy lifting is done for you.

Most high tech training is actually hampered by the traditional schooling model. Trainees end up spending too much time on theory and not enough time honing their skills. Computer Science students can spend four years in school and still not know how to make a website. In that same amount of time, a high school student could teach herself enough to develop and maintain a fully functional website.

To combat this problem, software development schools have sprung up across the country to give people a crash course in the basics of coding. Here in Omaha, Omaha Code School and Interface Web School have been around for a few years and are designed to take people from all facets of life and teach them the foundations of software development. Omaha Code School is a coding bootcamp where for 3 months, students with no experience in software development will go to class full time and dedicate their life to learning web development. Interface Web School is designed to be integrated with your current job by offering night classes.

These alternative schools make Omaha unique throughout the midwest. Most cities don’t have one of these schools, let alone two. These schools are putting Omaha on the right path, however, more needs to be done.

Omaha needs to double down on these high tech trade schools. The city needs to do whatever it can to help these schools succeed but at the same time put them in a position where they can iterate and improve their processes.

However, it won’t be enough to rely solely on high tech trade schools. Most students graduating these 3-6 month schools won’t be at the skill level to run their own projects. They will need more time to develop. They will know the fundamentals of their trade but they will still need a few years to go from a beginner to intermediate skill level. They probably won’t add much value to companies right off the bat.

The big challenge with these type of high tech trade schools is figuring out how to continue the graduates development. In bigger cities, we are seeing an oversaturation of inexperienced software developers. They graduate from a code school but then have trouble landing a job. Companies don’t want to hire people who don’t have any real world experience. This is a big problem because the labor market loses a software developer and money is wasted on the effort. The time tested system of apprenticeships might be the best solution to fix this problem.

The apprenticeship model for developing trade skills has been used since the beginning of civilizations. An apprenticeship is a system of training that includes on-the-job training and some accompanying classwork. Usually an apprentice works directly under someone who is highly skilled in that particular area of work. Before the age of computers, apprenticeships were used in all sorts of professions ranging from carpenters to bakers.

The reason apprenticeships have been used for so long is because they are really effective. They allow you to observe and interact with someone who has been in the industry for many years. They give you a low risk environment to practice using your skills in the real world. They also provide an environment where feedback is abundant and learning is accelerated.

Apprenticeships would make perfect sense for high tech skilled laborers like software development or data science. With most of these jobs, there is an initial onslaught of information and complexity. The learning curve is very steep. Apprenticeships would help provide valuable resources to ease the learning process.

Applying apprenticeships in the real world can get tricky. There are a few approaches Omaha’s businesses and government can take to make adoption easier.

Businesses could start using extended internships that last around a year. In this scenario, both business and intern would understand that the position isn’t permanent. During the internship, the intern would work under a more skilled employee. The experienced employee would monitor the intern and give them materials for continued education. The intern would be able to get some real life experience and continue their education. At the end of the internship, the company could assess if they want to keep the intern on as a full employee or part ways.

This would provide a win-win for both intern and company. The intern would gain valuable experience and improve their abilities. If they don’t end up becoming a full time employee then they would have enough experience to land another job. The company would benefit from the relatively cheap labor from the intern. The intern would add tangible value to the company’s products and the company would be in a strong position to hire the intern full time. Once hired full time, the intern would be able to hit the ground running because would they be familiar with the company's processes.

The 1 year internship is just one of many implementations of the apprenticeship system. These apprenticeships would be a win for the worker, a win for the company and a win for the city.

Local businesses will need to get comfortable with this type of training. They will need to take on some of the burden in developing these workers. Omaha’s business leaders will need to have a open mind with the process. They will also need some help from the city to make this process successful.

One of the major hurdles for the apprenticeship system is finding enough high skilled workers willing to take on less experienced employees. Most small to midsize businesses don’t have access to top notch software developers who could be mentors. A solution to this problem would be developing a continued education coding school that would take the place of the mentor. This schooling wouldn’t be full time and would integrate into the intern's work day. The whole goal of this school would be to develop a code school graduate into a intermediate level developer who could maintain their own projects.

Omaha could provide incentives for these apprenticeship initiatives. The city could also subsidize the cost of code school classes so more people from across all income levels could participate. The Omaha Chamber and/or the city government could help provide training so businesses feel more comfortable hiring a code school graduate.

The state government could provide grants to businesses that use the apprenticeship system, similar to InternNE. InternNE is a state funded program that provides grants to businesses that hire interns. The state funds would help alleviate some of the financial risks of bringing on inexperienced employees and encourage companies to experiment with the process.

There will need to be a city wide push to get this model of alternative education kick started. However, imagine if the apprenticeship system took off and this cycle of skill development continued year after year. Omaha would be flush with tech talent. A whole new generation of mentors would form and would eventually be leveraged to help train the next generation mentees. Omaha could grow its own talent and build the city from the inside out.

It will be really hard for Omaha to compete head to head with larger cities for the next generation of high tech skilled laborers. We will need to get creative with our approach if we want to excel in the future economy. Promoting high tech trade schools and the apprenticeship system could be a good approach. Investing time and money now could have massive payouts down the road for the city.