As jobs in the information technology sector are on the rise, educators in the Greater Houston area are implementing new initiatives to keep up with workforce demand.

“IT is an integral part of practically every business operation,” said Seelpa Keshvala, Lone Star College-CyFair president. “Part of our mission is to ensure we’re being responsive to the needs of our local community.”

As new jobs are created to accommodate new technology, the U.S. Department of Labor reports computer-related jobs grew by 42 percent nationally from 2000 to 2016 and by 37 percent in the Greater Houston area.

Augustus Campbell, president and CEO of the West Houston Association, said the growth of the IT industry in recent years has been substantial.

“There is a large network of firms who are focused on everything from data science and visualization to biomedical tech research,” Campbell said. “Houston has a lot of different pathways to technological success. It’s just a matter of making sure the talent pool is there.”

LSCS pursues bachelor degrees

Keshvala said cybersecurity is one of the most pressing issues in IT, and she anticipates a cybersecurity workforce shortage in the next three years.

“Cybersecurity is one of the hottest fields in IT,” she said. “Cyberterrorism and cybercrimes are big issues. Those challenges require highly specialized training, but there is a shortage of professionals with those skills, and it’s difficult to teach these.”

According to a report from the Identity Theft Resource Center, the U.S. saw a new record year for data breaches in 2017 with 1,579 incidents. This number is up from 1,091 the previous year and up 905.7 percent since 2005. In that time frame, nearly 1.1 billion records have been exposed, affecting business, finance, education, health care and government entities.

In cybersecurity alone, new positions, such as ethical hackers and penetration testers, have emerged in recent years. The USDL projects this career path will add 28,500 new jobs from 2016-26.

With these projections in mind, higher education officials are working to meet the industry need.

Gov. Greg Abbott signed Senate Bill 2118 on June 12, allowing the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board to authorize certain public junior colleges to offer bachelor’s degrees in applied science, applied technology and applied nursing.

LSCS Chancellor Stephen Head said nursing and applied technology were identified by business and industry partners as the areas with the most significant workforce shortages in the Houston area. Head began working with lawmakers to develop proposals for a Bachelor of Applied Technology degree—which will encompass more cybersecurity training—to be offered at LSC-CyFair.

Officials are in the submission process, working to receive approval from the THECB. Head said he hopes the college will be able to start offering classes in 2019.

Because universities typically do not offer four-year applied technology degrees, Head said IT professionals have a difficult time attaining promotions when they are ready to become managers.

“If you work for two years in the plant, you would have to go back and get a bachelor’s degree,” Head said. “These are exactly the people you want to move up because they know the operations. So what we would do with the bachelor’s of applied technology is … offer accounting, how to deal with people, some of the HR issues and some of the legal issues.”

New facility increases access

While cybersecurity is one of the fastest-growing trends in IT, the industry is broad and offers several career pathways. As the field continuously evolves, LSCS officials are working to ensure curriculum is up-to-date to help students meet that industry demand.

In the 2014 bond referendum, LSCS set aside nearly $22 million for the purchase and construction of the Westway Park Technology Center at 5060 Westway Park Blvd., Houston. The location is convenient for Cy-Fair students and in close proximity to startup companies and corporate entities that could offer internships and entry-level positions to students, she said.

Keshvala said when initial plans for the new technology center were announced, more than 100 individuals indicated interest in specialized IT training in the first two months. She said three to four cohorts could train 15 students each for the first year, and that in subsequent years, she anticipates expansion to four to five cohorts with 20 students each.

“Westway Park Technology Center is going to be a state-of-the-art facility,” Keshvala said. “We’re very excited about the flexibility. We’ll have to modify and add programs to keep up with industry demand. [Programs will] mimic real world environments with up-to-date equipment.”

The 130,000-square-foot, three-story facility is slated to open this fall with IT and visual communications programming. The college system already offers several Associate of Applied Science programs in these fields. The two-year degrees are designed for students who want to pursue short-term training to immediately enter the workforce, Keshvala said.

The average full-time tuition is about $800 per semester for these programs. Once the Bachelor of Applied Technology degree is available, officials said the four-year degree would cost less than $10,000.

Keshvala said officials are developing additional programming so local high school students can earn dual-enrollment credit that can be transferred back to LSCS and be applied toward an AAS.

Denise Kubecka, director of Cy-Fair ISD’s Career and Technical Education Department, said district officials are in communication with LSCS about opportunities with the new IT facility and degree program.

“We meet regularly to talk about what we’re doing in classes, what they’re doing in classes,” she said. “[We try] to stay in alignment with them and all other institutions to make sure our students are ready to go on to whatever field they want to go into.”

CFISD’s CTE program offers a diverse range of IT and visual communications classes from Introduction to Computer Science—offered as early as eighth grade—to more advanced courses covering telecommunications and networking, digital media and web technologies.

Students also have the option to attain certifications that give them the upper hand when entering the workforce or applying for colleges, Kubecka said. Within the IT industry, students can earn the Cisco Certified Entry Networking Technician and Cisco Certified Network Associate certifications as well as certifications in Adobe Creative Suite and Microsoft Suite at a low cost.

“There are a wide variety of technology credentials students can earn while they’re still sitting in high school to enrich their resume or college application for whatever’s coming next,” Kubecka said.

Entering the workforce

Campbell said IT will be critical to Houston’s future because if there are not enough qualified workers to staff the workforce locally, those jobs will be imported or relocated elsewhere.

“You can generally find people who have a degree in computer science, but the problem is finding someone with a degree and the soft skills needed to work well with clients,” he said. “[Employers] don’t want just a software engineer—they want a software engineer who knows about marketing, problem-solving and has presentation skills to work with clients effectively.”

Nita Waterman teaches introductory and Advanced Placement computer science courses at Cypress Creek High School, where her students learn about cybersecurity, coding, big data, ethics and teamwork. She said even students who do not plan to pursue careers in IT benefit from the hands-on experience and learn how to solve problems.

“I think everybody should learn to code a little bit because it teaches you how to think,” she said. “A lot of times, [students] memorize things and don’t really apply them, but this is totally application- and project-based. We say, ‘Now what? What’s next?’ It’s very unusual, and they have fun.”

When she started teaching computer science in 1984, Waterman used the Commodore 64—an eight-bit home computer. While the technology has evolved drastically over time, she said the principles used in the field ultimately have not changed.

Waterman said employers are looking for self-motivated workers who can think on their feet and creatively solve problems. Her students could soon be applying for positions that have not yet been created.

“The beauty of this is we don’t know what jobs are going to be available,” she said. “That’s why they have to get used to not knowing the exact answer—because we don’t know what’s going to be in the future.”