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Developing workforce tops insurance IT needs

By Chuck Crumbo
Published Jan. 21, 2013

Developing a pipeline of workers remains the top goal of the Columbia region’s $5 billion insurance technology and services industry.

To fulfill workforce needs, efforts are being made including training workers at Midlands Technical College and the University of South Carolina, developing a charter school aimed at attracting children to the IT field, and recruiting companies and experienced professionals that specialize in insurance IT work.

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“We’re continuing to see progress from both a workforce development standpoint and for what it’s leading to for the corporations that these workers are involved with,” said Keith Shah, vice chairman of the executive committee of iTs SC, Columbia’s insurance technology and services cluster.

A study — led by New Carolina, EngenuitySC, the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce and the city of Columbia’s Business in Motion program — was the first effort to quantify the region’s insurance technology and services assets and analyze workforce needs.

Columbia insurance technology and services firms, which employ about 15,000 at an average salary of $62,000, are growing, according to a study released in March by iTs SC.

The report, though, found that the local talent base isn’t large enough to sustain growth. Executives of S.C. companies doing insurance IT work said they were looking to fill 1,200 jobs in the next year. To meet those needs, Midlands Tech received a $5 million grant, good for four years, under the Growing Resources for Information Technology program through the U.S. Department of Labor.

The money, said Amy Scully, chairwoman of the cluster’s workforce committee, will help Midlands Tech provide those workers. The program is designed to build a training infrastructure for high-growth, high-demand IT jobs such as programmer analysts, computer network support specialists, and network and data communication analysts.

Developing homegrown talent for the insurance IT industry will help keep existing businesses here and attract others to the region.

Fourteen students have completed the program and another group will enter in March, said Scully, program director for computer and information technology at Midlands Tech. The program’s goal is to graduate 40 students a year, she said.

The cluster also is working with the University of South Carolina to launch an event in February that will help graduating seniors in the college’s insurance risk management program connect with area insurance companies and learn about job opportunities.

“We want to make it easier for the students to get to the folks who do the hiring, and for them to hear from the individuals what type of opportunities there are,” Scully said.

The event can highlight the number and types of insurance jobs available in the region and attract more students into the USC program, Scully said.

While the university and tech college are doing their part, Shah said the conversation about educating future IT workers might begin in grades K-12.

Although science and math receive greater emphasis in the elementary, middle and high schools, few programs focus specifically on information technology.

“Right now, IT schools are at a premium,” said Lonnie Emard, executive director of IT-ology. “Things have been changing so dramatically and we just don’t have enough young people in the pipeline.”

Planning is under way for a charter school, said Emard, being organized by a consortium of companies, organizations and academic institutions devoted to promoting, teaching and growing the IT profession. Space for a charter school has been secured at Richland Mall in Forest Acres, and work is under way on designing a curriculum, Emard said.

Emard said information technology could be effectively taught in a charter school, which receives public money but can be more flexible in course offerings that traditional schools.

For example, an IT charter school could offer more applied, hands-on teaching of technology, and emphasize math and science, Emard said.

“It’s not an alternative to the Governor’s School for Science and Mathematics,” Emard said. “It’s a local community’s answer to saying this is where the needs are going to be and if you want our young students to understand how to prepare themselves for the 21st century this is going to be a model school for that.”

One positive in having so many insurance IT companies is that other companies are moving to the region.

Aflac and Accenture cited Columbia’s development as a leading insurance IT center among their reasons for moving into the area. Aflac, headquartered in Columbus, Ga., merged with Columbia-based Continental American Insurance Co. and now has more than 550 employees in the area.

Accenture, an international management consulting and technology services firm headquartered in Dublin, acquired Duck Creek Technologies in August 2011. It recently moved its Columbia operations to the Wells Fargo building on Main Street.

“We wanted to be a part of the synergy of downtown,” said Eileen Potter, who’s involved in property and casualty insurance marketing with Accenture.

Potter, who’s also chairwoman of the cluster’s marketing and communications committee, cited Accenture’s involvement in IT-ology, which has its name atop the high-rise building at 1301 Gervais St., across from the Statehouse.

Experienced professionals may be more likely to relocate to an area where there are companies in the insurance IT field, industry representatives said. That’s because they can have more opportunities for career advancement without having to pack up and move.

To help build the local insurance IT workforce, a team is identifying potential companies that could move to the region, said Tiffany Davis, senior project manager at New Carolina: South Carolina’s Council on Competitiveness.

When developing a cluster, having a strong presence of similar organizations, along with the presence of a university and tech college, is attractive to some companies, Davis said.

“You know that if you come to this area it’s not just one organization that you could work for or do business with, but there are multiple organizations in the area,” Davis said. “That’s part of the collaborative effort that we are trying to do for cluster development.”

Reach Chuck Crumbo at 803-401-1094, ext. 204.