Building a tech workforce in Memphis bit by byte

Other than healthcare, few career fields are as shovel-ready as technology. And like healthcare, advances are seemingly being made daily. Nationally, demand for tech workers is also growing at an exponential pace. There are a currently half-million job openings in the U.S.

Closer to home, there are over 6,000 jobs available in Tennessee. Yet, only 625 computer science grads entered the state’s workforce in 2015, according to Memphis has a shortfall, too.  Only 6,000 trained tech workers are currently employed in the Bluff City, down from 10,000 in 2000.

To fill the growing gap, Tech901 is offering a series of certification courses. The curriculum is based on polling from local employers’ needs. The courses include IT networking, foundations, security and projects, as well as a Code 1.0 introduction to computer science.

“Tech penetrates all facets of our work and play. You see this tremendous shortage, and yet, there are opportunities to bring people into targeted vocational training to seize on those opportunities, launch careers that pay well and have long-term viability,” said Robert Montague, Tech901 executive director.

Classes are held at the Crosstown Concourse and the FedEx Institute of Technology at the University of Memphis. Founded in 2015, the nonprofit’s goal is to grow Memphis’ tech job base to 10,000 workers by 2025. Courses generally run 12 to 14 weeks.

Tech901 held a graduation ceremony in January for its fall cohort. (Tech901)

The pinch in tech workers is due, at least locally, to systemic inadequacies. Computer science is not stressed in public education. There is no dedicated state funding. Schools are not required to offer it as a part of curriculum. There are no K-12 standards, whatsoever. A study put out by WalletHub recently ranked Memphis at the bottom of STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) job markets. STEM jobs’ average pay is nearly double non-STEM positions.

“Education needs to be a priority. Information, knowledge-based work continues to increase as a function of the overall workforce,” said Montague.

Other factors contributed to the scarcity technology jobs. Staffing took a hit post-Y2K. Outsourcing claimed its share of scalps. But the trend is beginning to reverse.

“The pendulum has swung back the other way and companies are often having a difficult time finding qualified workers. As we approached foundations and corporations to talk about tech trends, we found support for a broader effort to train new entry-level IT workers. That was the genesis of Tech901,” said Montague.

One of those companies is Memphis’ largest employer, FedEx.

“FedEx runs its own repair shop called TechConnect for its own internal hardware issues and contract repair work out of it as well, and a number of graduates of Tech901 have been employed by it,” said Montague.
Tech901's office, classrooms and workspace are located at Crosstown Concourse. (Kim Coleman)
Other employers are on the lookout for graduates. Those comopanies include ServiceMaster, FLEX, Sparco, RHG Consulting, Interactive Solutions, Baptist Healthcare, Cook Systems, Commercial Advisors, Sedgewick, Vaco, AppleOne, ProTech, Robert Half, Aerotek. Healthcare providers Church Health and Baptist Healthcare have also placed Tech901 graduates.

A recent graduate of Tech901’s IT foundations course is Daniel Navarro. A 30-year-old, he moved to the U.S. from Costa Rica a year ago. At home, he worked in the family business of auto parts and repair, but he has tinkered with computer as a personal hobby since he was 17. After obtaining residency and a work permit, his wife told him about Tech901, and he decided to enroll to pursue a career where his interests lie.

“I never had any type of certification. Now that I am in the states, I thought it would be a good idea to get certified and do what I like. Computers are my passion,” said Navarro.

After graduating, he took a job with Church Health following a career fair. He now troubleshoots hardware issues with computers and printers, in addition to network support, for the nonprofit. He plans to take the next step in his career path by enrolling in the IT networking course in April, followed by the IT project course, rounding out his IT professional certification.

“I want to keep taking courses and keep improving my skills,” said Navarro.

In addition to the demand for hardware techs – particularly in Memphis – competition is fierce for nearly all facets of IT among employers. 

“Stakeholders and CIOs (Chief Information Officers) going into the new year are being very mindful of a few key factors - maintaining security of systems and safeguarding company information; technical innovation and helping their business grow; upgrading existing systems for business efficiency; and staff retention,” said Ben Zawacki, senior recruiter for Robert Half, a technology staffing agency based in California and with two branches in Memphis.

“Staff retention is on the mind of executives when it comes to effectiveness in the IT industry. Smart organizations are boosting their retention efforts," Zawacki added.

Further evidence of the shift in trend in hiring tech workers is the January 16 announcement that analytics company SAS is locating a training center at the FedEx institute. The collaboration will offer resources for skills training and certification to boost the Mid-South’s tech workforce numbers.

Data also supports the idea that it’s important to start early with tech skills. According to, women who try AP Computer Science in high school are ten times more likely to major in it in college, and African-American and Hispanic students are seven times more likely. Women make up 37 percent of Tech901’s students. Seventy-two percent are African-American, Hispanic or Asian-American.
Brad Montgomery, local software developer, teaches the Tech901 Code 1.0 class, where students learn coding languages for front end and back end development. (Kim Coleman)
“Clearly, the challenges we have, and as many urban areas have, in basic education impacts this as well," said Montague. 

"It’s critical to offer vocational training as an alternative and to seize on these opportunities where we do have a natural fit like the hardware technician career path because it does fit our current environment well and can be a good career path that often promotes its team leaders from within. We’ve met many people that manage hardware tech operations that started as technicians."

There are several other STEM options in town. New Horizons Computer Learning Centers, Lab Four Professional Development Center, Tennessee College of Applied Technology, in addition to most community colleges and universities, offer various degrees of tech training/education.

Maxine Smith STEAM Academy provides opportunities for middle-schoolers. T-STEM Academy East High School will be a new high school option starting in Fall 2018. CodeCrew, a local nonprofit, also has in-school and after-school coding programs in several area schools and community centers.

Four-year degrees can be prohibitively expensive for some, though; out of reach for others. Total costs of a bachelor’s degree can easily run into six figures when all expenses are factored.  The IT Foundations course at Tech901 is $100. Other courses run $250 each.

While – at least on paper – a holder of a four-year degree in computer science is probably most attractive to a potential employer, certification via vocational training is a high enough bar for many.

“Some companies have an expectation of that type of education and others are more open-minded. At least, they would rather go with the experience. There are multiple options and it depends on the type of environment you are wanting to get into as far as the industry,” said Zawacki.

As demand for workers increases, people will naturally gravitate toward a growth industry. Many of these people will be fresh out of school. Others will be looking for a new career path. Job security will likely be a common denominator.

“Fortunately, this is an opportunity that can be seized with months, not years, of education and hands-on training to open up new career paths,” said Montague.

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Read more articles by Kim and Jim Coleman.

Kim Coleman is a journalist with over 20 years of experience in newsrooms as a reporter, editor and graphic designer, including ten years with The Commercial Appeal as Design Director/Senior Editor and Print Planning Editor. 


Jim Coleman is a freelance writer, covering a variety of topics from high school sports, community news and small business. He has written for different news organizations over the past 20 years, including The Commercial Appeal, Community Weeklies, Lexington Herald-Leader and The Albuquerque Journal.