In 2018, we are more obsessed with technology than ever before. It’s no surprise that software developer is ranked No. 1 on the 100 Best Jobs in America, according to U.S. News & World Report, with over 250,000 projected jobs and a median salary of $100,000. With the U.S. Labor Department predicting that job growth in the tech field will be faster than the average for all jobs at a rate of 13 percent, IT is “it” when it comes to cool, in-demand jobs.
It didn’t always feel this way. At some point following the dawn of the internet, a stereotype was born. In the late 1990s, most offices had a designated “computer guy” working behind the scenes, helping to troubleshoot issues that may or may not be solved by a control-alt-delete command. Jimmy Fallon starred in a handful of “Saturday Night Live” sketches as Nick Burns, Your Company’s Computer Guy, whose sarcastic attitude toward his coworkers and unkempt hair fed into the stereotype.
Best Buy embraced the nerd stereotype when it founded the Geek Squad in 1994; titan in tech Apple debuted its Genius Bar (a more empowering title) in 2001 to help customers with their issues.
Then technology took over our everyday lives. The 21st century happened, and soon we were carrying supercomputers around in our pockets. Today’s classroom computers are for more than playing “The Oregon Trail” and “Snake.” Education became more focused on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) subjects – and when that focused reached its limit, the creative thinking component was brought along by the arts and STEAM was born.
Now, the landscape of IT has grown as our world becomes more digital than ever. Although still important roles, companies and organizations are needing more from employees than just being proficient in coding, web design or managing computer systems. A major focus is now on user experience, or UX, which identifies the way a person interacts with a service or product.
Opportunities abound in the Lansing area, as local companies and educational institutions seek not to just train but retain high-level talent in the growing information technology space.
One program working to stay ahead of the curve is Michigan State University’s experience architecture program within the College of Arts & Letters. While the XA Bachelor of Arts degree program is only a few years old, the innovative combination of training students to be skilled technologists as well as empathetic communicators is bringing a new level of unique talents to the workforce.
According to Casey McArdle, associate chair for undergraduate studies in the Department of Writing, Rhetoric and American Cultures and the director of the professional writing and experience architecture programs, there isn’t another program like it in the country.
“We look at it in terms of a way of crafting particular human experiences, whether it’s focusing on the product or the process,” McArdle said. “These ideas come in a mind that is centered in the humanities, and that’s what makes us so different.”
According to McArdle, there is always a need for candidates with strong communications skills — even and especially now in tech spaces.
“(Communications skills) are harder to train for the job. They’re almost impossible to outsource,” McArdle explained. “One of the key things that we do with this program is that we understand our XA graduates have to be excellent communicators. Then they can become leaders.”
User experience is something that companies and entities in all industries are working to improve each day, particularly when there is so much competition. The auto industry, a key piece of Michigan’s identity, is an area that has become increasingly digitized. With that comes a need to create a positive user experience.
“It’s not just a matter of (cars) being nice and shiny; it’s about them being functional and having a good user experience,” McArdle said.
While a lot of information technologies might host a computer science space, IT professionals are increasingly working in human-centered sectors, such as health care and education. MSU’s XA program offers students opportunities to collaborate with employers in the area, such as Auto-Owners Insurance and Jackson National Life Insurance Co.
At Jackson National Life, hiring talented individuals in the IT sector is crucial to the business. The company ranks as one of the area’s larger employers, with 2,500 associates around Lansing. Jackson National Life has embraced the increase in digital technology to help its mission to assist Americans as they prepare for retirement.
“Many think insurance companies do not have much to offer in the way of innovative technology,” said Dana Rapier, chief human resources officer with Jackson National Life. “Digital evolution is reshaping the way we live our lives, and it is reshaping the insurance and financial services industries. We currently are exploring machine learning, digital and artificial intelligence technologies to further grow our business.”
Local college students have the opportunity to gain experience through Jackson National Life’s Strategic Support Program.
“We have a facility located in East Lansing called the Zone, where we conduct leadership chats and expose college students to various business disciplines,” Rapier explained.
Programs like XA at MSU and the increasing number of job opportunities are helping to keep talent in the Lansing area instead of places like Detroit or Chicago.
The job perks offered by local employers and a lower cost of living also don’t hurt. Rapier said that Jackson National Life’s purpose-driven culture, amenities and volunteer opportunities help the company retain employees. Plus, McArdle noted that he often encourages local companies who are competing for XA students to offer any incentives they can because of the demand on their skill set.
“Our goal for our students when they graduate is that they will truly change the industry,” McArdle said.
As the tech industry continues to grow and change, so will the opportunities and importance of IT positions. Who’s the popular kid now?