Innovative Partnerships: Higher Education Initiatives

Higher Education Initiatives Help Build Louisiana’s Technology Workforce

Louisiana’s reputation as an industrial leader has a firm foundation in its history of quality computer science and engineering training. University of Louisiana at Lafayette was home to the first student chapter of the Association for Computing Machinery, or ACM, in 1961. It also hosted the first masters of science program in computer science in 1962. Today it generates the most computer science graduates in Louisiana.

According to LSU College of Engineering Dean Richard Koubek, in the past, many of Louisiana’s top computer science graduates were quickly recruited and whisked out of state by tech heavyweights like Google and Microsoft.

Now Louisiana’s IT sector is growing fast, and opportunities for computer science graduates are growing outside of the industrial arena, as high-profile technology companies look to find a specially trained workforce in the state.

Louisiana universities are prepared to meet that need. The University of New Orleans Department of Computer Science recently introduced a new concentration in game development to train more graduates capable of joining the state’s growing video game development industry. Louisiana Tech’s Tech Pointe is hosting companies like Fenway Group, a technology solutions company that will create apprenticeship opportunities for students in computer science and pair them with experienced employees in the company. Students will have the opportunity to stay with the company or join with a partner company after graduation.

Louisiana State University is collaborating with LED FastStart® and companies like CenturyLink, IBM, GE Capital, Gameloft and EA to develop curricula and create a cutting-edge workforce to suit specific industry needs.

These advances are creating opportunities for tech firms to shape a local workforce with the skills and knowledge they want. But expanding the sheer number of graduates moving into the talent pool is another core focus, especially at LSU.Koubek describes the arrival of software firms in Louisiana, like Ameritas Technologies – which plans to create 300 programming jobs minutes from the LSU campus in Baton Rouge – as “game changers.” Such firms will buoy the university’s plan to expand the number of computer science grads.

“The biggest limit to recruiting students to major in computer science in the past has been the lack of a strong IT sector,” Koubek said. “Students didn’t want to major in computer science because it often meant they had to leave the state after they graduated. That’s changing because now there are jobs for our graduates, so that means more interest in the major. It’s a circular process where growing interest and growing opportunity after graduation feed
each other.”

Tech experts describe a national shortage of software programmers. In Louisiana, higher education officials and state government are working in tandem with tech firms to boost the supply of highly skilled employees with precisely the skills those firms need.

It’s an ambitious undertaking and a key focus for Louisiana leaders. Gov. Bobby Jindal in 2012 announced a $100 million public-private partnership to significantly enhance research and teaching facilities for LSU’s College of Engineering.

Meanwhile, the university’s plan to expand its computer science graduates from 35 to 105 per year over three to five years will place it among the top tier U.S. universities for the number of computer science grads. That accomplishment will put LSU on par with MIT and Ohio State University, which awarded 109 and 110 such degrees, respectively, in 2011.

Other changes at LSU are designed to quickly grow and enrich the state’s technology workforce. The University in 2012 merged its electrical engineering and computer science programs into its new School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science as part of the effort to draw more students. The number of students admitted to computer science at LSU rose by 11 percent in the first few months after the programs were merged last year.

“These are early indicators that what we’re doing is having a positive effect,” Koubek said.

The state’s universities are becoming more visible partners in the effort to ensure the state’s technology talent meets industry need. In New Orleans, for instance, GE Capital is working closely with the University of New Orleans to shape its computer science course offerings. The state has committed $5 million over 10 years to help New Orleans area colleges expand curricula to address the needs of GE Capital, which opened a new technology center in the city in 2012.

A partnership between education leaders and IBM is a central component of the company’s recent decision to open an 800-job programming center in Baton Rouge to serve U.S. clients.

The state will provide $14 million in funding over 10 years to expand higher education programs designed primarily to increase the number of computer science graduates.

In connection with the effort, LSU will double its computer science faculty as it pursues the goal of a threefold increase in computer science graduates.

IBM also will work closely with LSU professors to create course work that ensures students are equipped to meet the growing demand for business services, including analytics, process innovation and application development.

The state’s response to workforce needs has been immediate and widespread. A new partnership between LSU and Baton Rouge Community College provides a unique pathway for students to gain admittance to LSU’s computer science program. More than 500 students are pursuing course work at the Community College to prepare them to transfer to the university to complete their undergraduate studies.

The National Science Foundation recently recognized the innovative approach with a $1.27 million grant to help students make that transition successfully.

“Engineering colleges throughout the state are making fundamental changes to their programs based on industry partnerships,” Koubek said. “Our close industry-university relationships are a competitive advantage for the state.”