Editor’ note: How can employers find more qualified workers in today’s scarce tech-trained labor market pool? Wake Tech Community College is working with Triangle firms such as Lenovo and NetApp to provide talent these tech giants need. In a two-part article, executives involved in the program explain how it worked. The first focuses on the college point of view. This second story addresses recommendations for the employers’ approach. Matt Zullo is department chair of Network & Computer Technologies at Wake Technical Community College in Raleigh.., the author of this story, is Technical Support Manager at JAGGAER, formerly known as SciQuest, and at one time was an executive with NetApp. Part one was written by Zullo.

CARY – Partner with a college that takes your business seriously, and can deliver the goods.

I worked for NetApp, a Fortune 500 storage technology company in the Research Triangle Park of NC. In 2011, the president of Wake Technical Community College, Dr. Stephen Scott, and his senior leadership team were making a roadshow of technology companies in Wake County.

Simultaneously, NetApp was expanding, and the talent pool for Technical Support Engineer (TSE) roles did not meet the expected long term demand. We were also looking at how to develop TSEs with capabilities tailored to the storage business. The ideal candidate needed technical skills and formal training in trouble shooting logic and customer service. Here’s how we got what we needed:

Ensure the college will perform as expected:

The WTCC presentation was exciting. Here was an opportunity to partner with an educational institution approaching us from a business perspective – with us being their customer. We conducted due diligence on WTCC’s ability to deliver on their vision. The Cisco Systems RTP campus had a long-standing relationship with WTCC, and long experience in recruiting just out of school talent. They enthusiastically endorsed WTCC, noting that the graduates were effective employees and the administration and departments were reliable, hard-working partners.

complete a thorough needs assessment:

What was the nature of the product that NetApp required? WTCC could, if asked, churn out people with specific technical skills in a Boot Camp fashion, but was that really what NetApp required? No. We knew we were searching for superior communicators with lifelong learning skills. NetApp believed that non-technical courses found in a traditional liberal arts education developed critical thinking and communications skills crucial to success in their customer facing environment. These types of

courses are the foundation for lifelong learning past the specific technology for which an engineer is hired. The pace of technological change and business evolution mean a TSE will have a productive career only if they are able to add a new professional competency every two to five years.

the HR challenge:

There is a long held pre-disposition by technology companies for employees with a Bachelor’s degree. If recruiters and hiring managers were not going to allow graduates with an Associate’s degree to compete, then the effort was pointless. NetApp’s response was that in return for the opportunity to help develop the curriculum and add learning materials directly applicable to our environment, students enrolled in, and graduates of, this focused program would compete on a level playing field.

Building the program:

For NetApp, given the level of commitment being contemplated (subject matter experts, equipment donations, and more), the main concern was that a true program would be built. Curriculum, internships, and achieving degree status within the NC Community College system all insured a rigor and legitimacy needed for success.

Wake Tech worked with us to form a group of NetApp managers and escalation engineers that served as the advisory committee for the development phase of the project. During several in-person meetings at the NetApp campus, we discussed the central question, “what skills would make me want to hire a candidate for employment?” The requirements NetApp developed began with formal customer service and troubleshooting logic. From that, specific technical skills were identified.

why it worked:

Without doubt, the key element in our success was commitment: sustained commitment at the executive level both at WTCC and NetApp. This took the form of time spent in quarterly updates, guiding the initiative and resource allocation. It also came in the form of biweekly WTCC/NetApp working meetings with the emphasis on working. These meetings initially served as brainstorming sessions and subsequently became project update sessions where mutual accountability was a key component. It may seem a mundane strategy, however those meetings, generally done via conference call, bonded the team and sustained our momentum. As time went by, and ideas and challenges began to bubble up, more and more people from WTCC and NetApp joined the meetings.

FOCUSED effort:

NetApp developed a Statement of Work for WTCC that was not the inexpensive, short term, focused, “workforce enablement,” or “boot camp,” training that is typical of business-community college transactions. Instead, it reflected a requirement that TSEs be lifelong learners, enabled by general education courses, additive to computer technology courses. Graduates can solve the problem at hand, but more importantly they can do so in a manner expected of the Fortune 500 customer base. A requirement that could only be satisfied by an accredited, full spectrum, academic institution.