April 15. 2013 9:00AM

Centare partners with universities to bridge tech skills gap

Technology

By Dan Shafer

  
A few prevalent concerns for businesses in the Milwaukee area have been addressing a skills gap, bridging a generation gap and working to combat the area's “brain drain.”
Centare moved its headquarters to a larger space in Brookfield last year.

Brookfield-based software development and consulting firm Centare Group Ltd. is implementing a new training program that aims to address all of these concerns.

The company is hiring soon-to-be graduates from local universities and implementing a 12-week program called the "Apprentice Software Engineer" (ASE) program, where these straight-from-college hires will learn real world skills through mentorship and training in a team atmosphere.

"Seeing the shortage of talent on the market and seeing a high demand from our clients, it just wasn't lining up," said Amy Fallucca, director of talent acquisition at Centare. "We had to figure out a way to meet the needs of our clients and get more creative in our talent acquisition strategy. By creating a training program we're able to bring college students in because we're going to put a support structure in place to help them really hit the ground running."

A big reason for the need to create this type of program comes from Centare's recent success.

"In the last 18 months, we've basically doubled in size and really solidified our business model and our approach to the market," said Chad Albrecht, Centare partner and vice president of agile practice.

In that time, the company has relocated to a larger facility in Brookfield and added roughly 60 jobs, bringing the total number of employees to more than 100. Additional offices have also been opened in Madison and Chicago.

Implementing this program is part of the company's strategy toward continued growth. While expansion and increased demand are fairly desirable problems, all things considered, they are problems in need of solutions.

"There are demands on the organization," said Dave Glyzewski, Centare co-founder, president and chief executive officer. "We need to be able to hire more people. But we're able to do this program because we have a successful business model today that can support the investment."

The company, now in its 14th year, has usually hired individuals who have been in their careers for several years and is new to hiring recent college graduates.

"Looking at college, certainly there's a whole untapped group of people that we haven't dealt with in the past," said Andy Hall, director of Milwaukee consulting. "So, realizing that (and understanding) what our clients expect from a representative of Centare, people coming out of college don't have that same sort of skillset."

Hall said the skills gap in the information technology and software engineering field certainly exists and is recognizable.

"The skills gap that we've seen not only is the tooling aspect, but a lot of what we see in this particular market isn't necessarily in line with what the colleges are offering as far as languages," he said. "Additionally, some of the deeper concepts as far as patterns and the way to approach design are not necessarily in line with what really is occurring."

Part of this gap exists because technology is such an evolving field, and newer, more advanced programming languages that are not taught in college are being used by companies like Centare. But there are other factors to the technology skills gap equation as well.

"There's a big deficiency of people at about seven years of experience," said Albrecht. "If you rewind from today seven years and add four years on that, where do we end up? The bursting of the dot-com bubble. Nobody went to school for computer science for four years. Enrollments dropped down to next to nothing, so we're dealing with that gap as well."

In addition to certain technical skills, the training program is also focusing on developing soft skills and business know-how.

"It's not just about building software," said Glyzewski. "It's about how you can walk and talk in the business world."

The project has been led in large part by Fallucca and Hall, who have spearheaded the recruitment process by partnering with the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM), Marquette University and the Milwaukee School of Engineering (MSOE).

Building these relationships with local universities has been important, said Fallucca.

"It's so key to retain the talent from these Milwaukee-based schools in the Milwaukee area," she said. "If they don't find jobs here they're certainly going to find them in California and different areas like Chicago or New York."

While this aims to address the area's "brain drain," Fallucca also said there's a "boomerang effect" occurring, where people will return to the area after working elsewhere.

"We have a number of employees who have left and then come back because we have a really great environment, and there's recognition of that," she said.

In addition to partnering with colleges as a way to retain local up-and-coming talent, it's also a way for Centare to bridge a generation gap and a broader culture change happening within businesses.

"Everybody's talking about the different generations in the workforce and we definitely saw that firsthand," said Fallucca. "They want to enjoy the work that they do, they want to be passionate about their job, they want work-life integration, they want flexibility, they want to work with smart people. Those traditional benefits and things that other larger employers can offer that sometimes we can't mean less to this generation."

Albrecht also said that bringing in fresh new talent can be a way to challenge traditional thinking within the organization.

"There's a two-way benefit to this," he said. "There can be learning and mentorship that happens from the senior to the junior and similarly, passion and open-mindedness that comes from the junior to the senior. That's part of the culture that we're building – to challenge the way people think."

After conducting between 50 and 60 interviews with students expected to graduate in May, five apprentice software engineers have been hired and will officially begin working in June. The group will be working in a team-oriented, collaborative atmosphere with a great deal of variety during the program's 12 weeks to prepare them for full-time consulting roles. If the program proves to be successful, there are plans for it to be accelerated and for this type of training to be utilized in other areas of Centare's business.

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