With the largest data center market in the U.S. and many other technology companies from startups to household names based in the region, Northern Virginia is increasingly known for technology.
But as economic development officials and businesses have warned, that meteoric growth is happening faster than companies can find qualified workers to fill those new jobs. There are tens of thousands of vacant tech jobs in the region. Last August, Virginia Economic Development Partnership President and CEO Steven Moret said Virginia appears to have the biggest gap between demand and supply for qualified tech workers of any state in the country.
But the past year has also seen leaders in government, business, and education get serious about training the next generation to fill those jobs.
“We’ve got to think about it from the ground up,” said Sharon Virts, former Loudoun County Economic Development Advisory Commission chairwoman, and herself a successful entrepreneur after founding and growing FCi Federal. “It can’t just be something we add on to a class. We have to merge it into our kids’ lives.”
Virts is also vice chairwoman of the GO Virginia Region 7 Council, part of a statewide initiative feeding funding into ideas designed to make big changes to Virginia’s economy. Region 7 covers Northern Virginia and the almost 2.5 million people living here. And that council recently approved a $1.2 million program to expand cybersecurity and data center education centered around Northern Virginia Community College.
“We have a huge talent pipeline problem in the region, and not just here in Virginia, but in Maryland and DC,” Virts said. “We’ve got about 35,000 some-odd cyber and tech jobs that are coming open in the next few years, and we want to be able to fill them with people here in Virginia to contribute to our economy.”
That project, the Northern Virginia Tech Talent Pipeline, will bring together the resources of NVCC, George Mason University, Fairfax County Public Schools, and other local governments, including Loudoun.
Among the project’s elements is putting together a website to act as a shared resource for the region, including labor market data, training and education programs, and financial assistance, and internship and job opportunities; expanding the community college’s Tech Talent Pipeline Employer Collaborative; creating a shared communications and promotional campaign; and refocusing educational programs on what students need to pass credential exams and getting hands-on learning.
Schools Put Students in the Action
The Loudoun County school system is already on board to equip the next generation of tech workers. Already, students are learning to code starting in kindergarten at the school system’s computer science immersion schools: Meadowland, Moorefield Station and Round Hill elementary schools. This year, Superintendent Eric Williams is proposing integrating computer science into every elementary school in the county over the next three years. He’s also proposing expanding the school system’s offering of elective computer science classes in middle and high school and integrating computer science and computational thinking into the curriculum at five middle schools.
NVCC is also making enormous strides in preparing students for the growing number of tech jobs, according to Julie Leidig, provost at the college’s Loudoun Campus.
This past fall, the college announced it was teaming up with Amazon Web Services to launch a new associate degree specialization in information technology and cloud computing. The degree program will be one of the first cloud computing programs in the nation offered by a community college. Cloud and distributed computing were highlighted by LinkedIn as the number one in-demand skill over the past three years.
Amazon Web Services also launched its only apprenticeship program on the East Coast through NVCC. That program has five tracks, in topics such as data center tech, network tech, and solutions architect.
NVCC also created space for more students in its associate of applied science in cybersecurity on all five of its campuses. Leidig said cybersecurity has been the college’s fastest-growing degree program for several years.
Last fall, the community college also revamped its engineering technology associate of applied science degree by adding two new specializations. The college added a data center operations technology specialization specialty at its Loudoun Campus, and a mechatronics specialty at its Manassas Campus.
Leidig said the community college has worked closely with industry leaders in Northern Virginia for years to create new degrees, new specializations, and certificate and apprenticeship opportunities—all with the goal of equipping the workforce to meet the tech industry’s demand.
“We recognize the tremendous need for technology workers not only in Loudoun County but all across our region. At NOVA, we’re doing everything we can to supply our many talented students of all ages with the skills they need to fill the available jobs,” she said. “Our next big push will be to expand apprenticeships and internship opportunities to help our graduates transition into jobs.”
NVCC student Bianca Nacu said she decided to get into the school’s cybersecurity program after thinking about her job prospects.
“I was actually a music major before this, and I found that the opportunities for that field weren’t the best for me,” Nacu said. “So I was exploring more majors and I decided on this because my brother-in-law and I had talked about it in the past. And then, you know, the money is also good.”
She said she has found the field interesting, and it has changed the way she looks at the technology-saturated world around her—whether it means being frustrated when her friends are not more cognizant about the threats associated with connecting to public Wi-Fi and posting their locations on social media, to having a less talked-about perspective on the month-long federal government shutdown.
“Clearances weren’t being processed…so I do think that right now the country is very vulnerable to attacks because of that shutdown,” Nacu said.
From here, she hopes to transfer to George Mason University, but said although she is pursuing a bachelor’s degree, the industry certifications are key. The community offers several industry certificates, including cloud computing and database specialist.
And Nacu said something the region’s businesses would no doubt be thrilled to hear:
“I am so set on staying in Virginia,” Nacu said. “Over these past few years, it’s become very apparent that Northern Virginia and DC are becoming … a very hot spot for technology.
Businesses Look for Someone to Pay
The new commitment to tech training was also evident through a huge incentive package to draw a new Amazon headquarters to Crystal City—which went beyond the typical tax breaks and cash incentives and was largely built around beefing up technology education, to make sure the tech giant and those around it can find qualified employees.
As part of the deal to land Amazon, Virginia will work to double the annual number of graduates with computer science or closely related degrees, hoping to add 25,000 to 35,000 graduates over the next 20 years. That includes an investment fund or colleges and universities to expand their programs, spending $375 million to expand George Mason University’s Arlington campus and a new Virginia Tech campus in Alexandria.
The state will also spend $50 million on science, technology, engineering, math, and computer science education in public schools and expanding internships for higher education students over the next 20 years.
“There is a deficit of talent, here and across the country,” Virts said. “It’s not just here, and it’s something that we as a community need to work together on.”
And she said that means starting in primary school.
“We’ve got to start thinking about these kids young and getting them excited about careers in the computer and technology areas so it’s something they want to do when they’re little,” Virts said.
In her own experience growing FCi Federal, a federal contracting company, she said finding talent is always a challenge.
“What complicates it is when you need people with these kinds of credentials and these kinds of certifications, and then you add the layer of clearances on top of it,” Virts said. “Finding talent and developing talent that’s clearable. Top Secret clearances are not easy to get.”
All that will help people like Michael Whitlock, the business development manager at Sabey Data Centers. Already established in markets to the west, Sabey is making inroads in the DC region’s market—which means hiring.
“It’s just so competitive out here where you can throw a rock next door and be in another data center, and these new recruits, they can come in and just have their pick of whatever they want to do,” Whitlock said.
For Sabey, he said, sometimes that means offering more money, but often it means offering a workplace culture.
“This is a place where you can come and … your talent can be utilized in so many ways, and your voice is definitely heard here,” Whitlock said. “I like to say, with me, it’s not a dictatorship. It’s open here, everybody has an opinion here, and everybody has a certain role they can play.”
His own daughter is studying to work in data centers, and he and the company have donated time to help train up more workers—whether it be dropping into classes at NVCC, or taking in interns and showing them the ropes.
“Feeding into the ecosystem is the only thing that is going to provide sustainability for the data center world,” Whitlock said. “It’s not going to stop anytime soon. It’s going to just keep booming and booming and booming, so it’s in your best interest to feed into the ecosystem, and give back, and just water the seeds and watch them come up.”
Danielle Nadler contributed to this report.