The world of technology holds prospects for many more jobs in the future — and even today, considering the national unemployment rate for all computer and math fields is just 3.5 percent.
For companies, though, it's a huge challenge, because it represents a shortage of qualified people to fill needs, executives said.
"Even when we find a good employee, there's still a significant period of training to get people up to speed," said Ed Ackerman, vice president and chief operating officer for Cumberland County-based information technology consulting firm Kasual Computing Inc.
New employees often need technical skills augmentation — by far the easiest part of training, he said — as well as soft skills training to help them communicate better with clients.
Lower Allen Township-based Kasual hired two people last month and has connections with local colleges to feed those needs, but still it's evident there are shortages everywhere in the tech realm, Ackerman said.
Fixing those shortages will require education that focuses on science, tech, engineering and math — also known as STEM fields — and training that pushes practical in-demand skills, not just theory, executives and educators said.
"What it means to get an education and be educated is changing," said Bili Mattes, associate provost for strategic markets at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology.
Education, criminal justice and business often are top study areas in post-secondary education, but they aren't necessarily the fastest-growing areas of employment over the next decade, she said. The fields that are the fastest growing involve technology.
The number of biological technicians working on disease research in labs is projected to increase 20 percent by 2018, she said. The number of computer technicians working in industries from manufacturing to media is projected to increase 15 percent.
In the same time, as much as 50 percent of the job openings in the economy will require some college education, she said. Today, only about a quarter of Pennsylvania's population has an undergraduate degree.
"Again, the point being … science and technology is the area where there's lower enrollment even though there's higher need and wages," Mattes said.
Some companies look at shortages and refuse to wait for the right person.
Cumberland County-based Mindteck Inc., a software and IT services company, last year started its own "academy" to find people with a good base knowledge of technology from colleges and other fields. The company could hire about 200 more people this year, but the workforce and its skills are thin and competition is great, executives said. It's trained about 40 people through its academy.
"The shortages are a result of not training enough people, but also because people don't have the right skills," said Bob Spoljaric, vice president of professional services with the Hampden Township-based company.
The academy instructs recruits on practical programming, such as the finer points of Java and Oracle languages, beyond what they may have had in school or at previous jobs. All the while, the recruits are Mindteck employees working on client projects for hands-on experience.
Mindteck is considering opening the program as a workforce feeder for clients, Spoljaric said.
"We're aware that there are problems with the workforce, and we're trying to build up that workforce either for Mindteck projects or for client projects," he said.
Such programs at companies, universities and community colleges are becoming more prevalent, Mattes said. Retraining workers for industries with a high growth potential will be crucial for meeting the needs of tech sectors, but also for helping the economy recover generally, she said.
That's why for several years the state's CareerLink offices — tasked with helping the unemployed find training and work, among other services — has been pushing so-called "gold collar jobs," Mattes said. Those are high-growth jobs, such as industrial maintenance technicians in manufacturing or some IT fields, where it wouldn't require going back to college to transition.
"I'm not sure the folks looking for these opportunities are always aware of the bridges that can help them," Mattes said.
When it comes to programming jobs, the larger issue is body count, Spoljaric said. Some projects require a lot of people and there aren't enough workers to go around.
"We recognized that our customers were experiencing a shortage of available resources," he said. "It was creating a problem of not just enough people, but cost. Cost was becoming extremely high."
That's because it's expensive to lure a programmer away from big tech markets, where cost of living is higher but so are the wages, he said. On the flip side, some workers in the Mid-Atlantic region can't get jobs because their skills don't match those needed by companies.
Some of the students in Mindteck's latest class said there's a bit of a chicken-and-egg scenario with tech firms.
"You need experience to get a job, but you need a job to get experience," said Rodrigo Tamayo, a 24-year-old programmer in the academy.
That's a frustrating scenario, students said.
It might be a reality check for companies, said Pam Martin, director of the TechCelerator at Murata Business Center, a business incubator in Carlisle that's fostered successful tech enterprises. Although criticism of an ill-prepared workforce has been around for a while, it might be unrealistic to assume every worker is going to be perfect.
"I don't think anyone comes out ready-made," Martin said.