Carl Erickson| Crain’s Detroit Business

As everyone who’s recently tried to hire developers or interaction designers knows, there’s an acute talent shortage in the U.S. This should be worrisome to everyone, given the importance of software to nearly all aspects of the economy, but is especially troubling for firms that rely on software for innovation. A recent article in Forbes goes so far as to say that we’re seeing the rise of Developeronomics, an economic system based on the critical need for software and the scarcity of development talent.

The market is beginning to react to the disparity between supply and demand with new forms of training and education. Universities still matter, I believe, and I’m sure they are trying to increase their output, but there are a host of creative new attempts to address the shortage. Some are aimed at particular groups of people, some are designed to address the perceived shortcomings of a computer science degree.

In January 2012, the State of Michigan launched The Shifting Code program to train developers in multiple cities. The program is run by the Michigan Economic Development Corp. and is recognition of the fact that the talent shortage is hurting our economy. Location of the classes is based on employer need and the availability of talent.

Our state is responding in a multitude of other ways as well. Since opening our Detroit office almost a year ago, Atomic Object has held two daylong computer camps (BitCamp) for seventh- and eighth-grade girls from the Detroit Public Schools system. It’s a fun, free day spent introducing young women to coding in hopes it will ignite a lifelong passion, or, at the very least, give them new ideas.

Jen Meyers spoke about Girl Develop It at the Software Craftsmanship North America conference in 2011. GDI trains women in programming. Given the paucity of women in university programs, this grassroots, bootstrapped effort is going after the 50 percent of the population that is nearly lost to the profession.

Detroit recently started its own chapter of Girl Develop It. Many of its classes are held at places like Atomic Detroit, Mango Languages and D:hive. Digerati Girls, Develop Detroit, Founder Campus, Detroit Rails and Grand Circus are a few of the other educational tech groups finding roots in the D.

On the other side of the state in Grand Rapids, The Factory is providing co-working and co-learning spaces for individuals and companies. Pegged as “Like Cheers, but for work,” The Factory hosts classes on things like HTML/CSS, Modern Front-End, Intro to Ruby, etc., for anyone who’s interested to learn and willing to pay. Classes are multiple weeks long and not inexpensive, but there are scholarships available.

Across the lake in Chicago, the software craftsmen at 8th Light have a very strong and well-defined apprentice program. This is an example of an approach companies are taking to develop their own talent when faced with a chronic shortage.

And if you’re looking for warmer weather, RoleModel Software’s Craftsmanship Academy is an intense sixth-month training program, followed by a one year apprenticeship in Holly Springs, N.C. Ken Auer has been mentoring and training developers for years. Craftsmanship Academy is a formalization of this work.

These are examples of a market-based response to the shortage of developers exiting universities. While I think these programs have real merit and usefulness, there are elements of a Computer Science degree that are very important and, unfortunately, not covered by these types of classes. The breadth of technology, theory and computer systems knowledge one gains from a traditional CS degree is difficult to replicate and invaluable in so many ways.

My hope is that these tech educational groups continue to expand and serve, but that we also think about encouraging the love of solving problems with software at a young age. Targeting middle-school and high-school age students seems like the best way to truly affect the shortage and create a talented and diverse future workforce.

So many of these students have no idea what they want to do when they “grow up.” This is perfectly normal. What’s not normal is being completely unaware of an entire field and its possibilities. A career in software is almost limitless. It’s fun, creative, well-paid, full of benefits — both medical and social — and there’s an unmet demand for the foreseeable future. Not a bad combination; not bad at all.

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