Tech firms kick in for computer science at Boise State University

Donations and a grant could help BSU satisfy the Valley's demand for software developer grads.

krodine@idahostatesman.comSeptember 13, 2013 

  • About the grant

    The Idaho Department of Labor invited applications for a new workforce development pilot program via the Idaho Workforce Development Council, funded by a 3 percent offset of employer unemployment insurance taxes.

    The request for proposals indicates up to three two-year grants will be issued, each for up to $1 million. The application deadline, initially Sept. 6, has been extended to Oct. 4.

    Any public postsecondary school in Idaho may apply, and each applicant must partner with at least three private-sector businesses within the industry or industries targeted.

    Boise State College of Engineering Dean Amy Moll said the university will try to expand its computer science program even if its grant hopes fall short, but the funding would help.

Some local technology businesses, long worried about a shortage of software developers, are putting their money where their need is.

So far, six Treasure Valley companies have committed more than half of the $250,000 needed for Boise State University to secure a $1 million grant to beef up its computer science program, said Amy Moll, dean of Boise State's College of Engineering.

The Idaho Technology Council has encouraged members to pony up, hoping for a half-million in business commitments by the end of the month. That amount, said Moll, could provide "close to full-ride" scholarships for 33 promising computer-science students each year for two years. By 2016, the university aims to increase its annual cohort of computer-science graduates, now 25, to 60.

One company that has committed to contribute is Clearwater Analytics, a fast-growing Boise company that already gives internships to Boise State students, hires Boise State graduates and has a stake in increasing that pool. Spokesman Chris Brock said Clearwater has hired six Boise State graduates since May, all to full-time jobs.

"We are playing a role in this application because we think it's important for Boise State to develop its computer science program," said Clearwater Director of Development James Price. Clearwater, which provides investment portfolio reporting and analytics for companies including Starbucks and Best Buy, has 265 employees, nearly a 70 percent increase since January 2012.

GROWING OUR OWN

Idaho's escalating need for qualified tech workers, and Idaho schools' inability to produce enough computer science graduates to feed that need, has been a key issue for the Idaho Technology Council and state and local economic development agencies in recent years.

Several recently unveiled efforts focus on recruiting workers from out of state.

But businesses also want to enhance the recruitment pool in their backyard, and that's the beauty of Boise State's proposal, Technology Council President Jay Larsen said.

"I think it's a good deal," Larsen said.

Having to recruit out of state makes the hiring process slower and more costly, he said, estimating that the average recruiting tab to bring on a new software professional ranges from $20,000 to $30,000.

Larsen said he has talked to several companies that are considering contributing to Boise State's effort to secure a workforce development grant from the Idaho Department of Labor.

Students who win scholarships would commit to work in the Idaho tech industry for at least one year after graduation. Partner businesses would commit to hiring those graduates at market salary levels.

Industry partners would help design student assessments and screenings for the scholarships, bring on interns from the program and have more Idaho graduates to choose from.

"We expect it to be a true partnership," Moll said. "We're getting very positive response from industry."

SMALLER CLASSES, BIGGER HELP

Although grant funding would be limited to two years, Boise State expects to make expansion of its computer science program permanent. Plans call for hiring three new full-time lecturers and three graduate student teaching assistants for the computer science department, plus a boost in administrative and technical resources.

Bringing in new staff members would go a long way toward retaining and educating juniors and seniors in the computer science program, Moll said.

"We know a smaller class size in these upper division courses really helps the students succeed," she said.

So does financial assistance. All the business contributions would go toward scholarships.

Plans call for offering $7,500-per-year scholarships to help juniors and seniors "focus on their studies, get out and get a job," Moll said.

Those scholarships would cover tuition and fees - about $6,500 - plus about $1,000 for books and supplies.

Recent publicity about Idaho's need for more software developers already has driven Boise State's computer science enrollment upward, she said. Unofficial fall numbers put the computer-science program's total enrollment at more than 450 - an increase of about 20 percent.

Larsen said he expects more businesses to commit to scholarship contributions before the Oct. 4 grant deadline, saying, "I met last Friday with some people who are still trying to figure out how to do it."

"I'm excited about it," he said. "I'm optimistic about it happening."

Kristin Rodine: 377-6447

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