Coding Academy Is A Key Win In Closing Tech Skills Gap

A chronic challenge for the Sarasota County region is the gap between the skill needs that many companies in our growing technology sectors need, and the employees and their skill sets available to fill those needs. And the challenge is only expected to get worse in the next five years, as there are estimated to be 2,700 new technology jobs that will be created in the region.

Which is why it was such a huge win when State College of Florida was awarded a $3.6 million grant by the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity to create a Center for Advanced Technology and Innovation in the old SCF library on the Bradenton campus, and a regional coding academy that will include a location in downtown Sarasota. The coding academy is particularly targeted at this skills gap.

“This is an incredibly important initiative to make the workforce competitive while offering students an alternative path with real world application,” said Anand Pallegar, CEO of atLarge, located in downtown Sarasota, and one of several critical players in helping the region attract the grant money. “This will be an integral part of building a competitive workforce. We’ll definitely be drawing from the coding academy.”

SCF’s plans have many exciting elements that will benefit the region, but the Economic Development Corporation of Sarasota County was particularly focused on the visioning, vetting, planning and advocacy of the coding academy, as the key to meeting business skills gaps and positioning the grant for evaluation success. It was important make sure the private sector was engaged and enthusiastically supportive — and it really stepped up. Dozens of local companies participated at some level in the grant process. Civic leaders like the Gulf Coast Community Foundation and the Barancik Foundation also provided support, as did sarasota County. There was tremendous regional cooperation with the Bradenton Area Economic Development Corporation and our local legislative delegation leader Sen. Joe Gruters provided key support.

“We are proud to partner with our region’s economic development leaders through the SCF Center for Advanced Technology and Innovation to deliver market responsive training and education to meet the needs of our community and industry,” said Dr. Carol Probstfeld, President of State College of Florida, Manatee-Sarasota. The grant application was submitted several months ago to the Florida Job Growth Grant Fund and there was enormous competition for limited funding. Our community’s vision and regional cooperation, along with the tech job-creation opportunity put us over the top.

“We need to make Sarasota more tech focused, and we need to build a pipeline, and traditional school system are not really set up to get these kids trained,” said Pete Petersen, CEO and Managing Partner, Dealers United. In part, that is because these are short but very intensive training sessions in code academies. “A lot of people like this region and want to support it by hiring here — not offshoring it. This is a great way to bring high-paying jobs to the region.”

Petersen, another important player in getting the grant, frequently travels to Silicon Valley, Austin, Texas and New York for business and all of those regions have multiple coding academies in operation.

Many of these types of positions are no longer bound to tech companies only. Petersen points out that most companies of any size now have developers and IT staff, and that this is only broadening the skills gap because of the increased demand. With the grant application and award announcement behind us, now the real work begins. “It’s an awesome opportunity for our community,” said Pallegar, been helping in how the coding academy should be established and run. “But we have to get it right.”

Most of these coding academies’ programs last for about 16 weeks. They’re jump-start accelerators that allow for binge training, sort of like binge-watching on Netflix, and offer many different types of training, from front-end designers for a basic user interface to more full-stack training in databases and logic. “In one semester, a coding academy can get people from knowing nothing to being totally ready,” Petersen said. And that is the promise that SCF, the EDC, tech community leaders and all partners are committed to realizing.

Contact Mark Huey, president and chief executive officer of the Economic Development Corp. of Sarasota County, at mhuey@edcsarasotacounty.com. EDC is the public/private partnership leading economic diversification efforts by working with community and regional partners.