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The key to rebuilding West Virginia's economy: Technology

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Jeff Vandall Jeff Vandall
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Jeff Vandall is IBM's senior state executive for West Virginia. A lifelong resident of the state, Vandall is a graduate of West Virginia University, with a Bachelor of Science degree in computer science.

There's no doubt the American economic recession of recent years hit West Virginia hard, especially in our core industries of mining, construction and manufacturing but our state is rebuilding. According to the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, our mining jobs are on their way back, and we've had big employment upswings in retail, health care, and professional services.

We can't let this potential for growth slip away. As these industries begin to prosper, we need to capitalize on their economic potential. At their core, good companies start with (and hire) talented employees, which is why it is imperative our current and future local workforce has the skills and education needed to fill these jobs and excel these industries.

Though information technology (IT) may not be the first thing that comes to mind when discussing retail, health care, mining and manufacturing, it should be. Technology is now an integral part of every successful enterprise today, across industries and job functions. From the developers who create the mobile applications for your bank to the marketers who use business analytics to deliver special offers specific to your interests, the importance and ubiquity of IT skills will only continue to grow.

In fact, CEOs worldwide now see advanced technology as a top driver of change within their organizations, even ahead of market forces and the economy. Naturally, this translates to job growth: IT jobs in the U.S. are expected to grow by 22 percent through 2020 (Bureau of Labor Statistics). Many of these jobs require expertise in the areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

Here's our challenge: We have a tremendous technology skills gap. A study by Georgetown University shows there will be 25,000 STEM-related jobs West Virginia will need to fill by 2018. These are high paying jobs that not only help the individuals who hold them but the communities they live in. IBM's own research with educators and students indicates there is a major gap in academic institutions, ability to meet IT skill needs. 

This may read ominously, but it presents an enormous career opportunity for West Virginia — if we react correctly and immediately. To fully wrench ourselves out of the recession's grip, we must equip our work force with the right technology skills to meet business needs, drive innovation and propel growth in all of the industries calling West Virginia home. If we don't, we risk not being competitive with other states.

The good news is we're taking the right first steps. Recently, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin announced the faculty in the West Virginia Community and Technical College System will now have comprehensive, no-charge access to advanced IT training materials via IBM's Academic Initiative. These resources, which include software, curricular content and instructional materials, will help our students prepare for and fill jobs in the high-demand areas of business analytics, cloud computing and cyber security. And beyond filling already available jobs, learning these skills will give our work force's burgeoning entrepreneurs the tools needed to start their own successful businesses, as well as identify areas where current companies can innovate, expand and thrive.

While this is an important first step, our academic institutions, companies, students, entrepreneurs and business leaders must continue working together. No one group can solve this challenge alone, and continuing the expansion and support of programs such as these are vital. We have the tools needed to catalyze our state's economy into a stronger one than it was ever before. Let's use them, before our chance slips away.