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Initiative hopes to double Maine’s computer science graduates by 2017

Posted Feb. 07, 2013, at 4:51 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 12, 2013, at 9:15 a.m.
James Page, chancellor of the University of Maine System, says Project>Login “is not something we want to succeed. This is something that must succeed."
Whit Richardson/BDN
James Page, chancellor of the University of Maine System, says Project>Login “is not something we want to succeed. This is something that must succeed."

PORTLAND, Maine — A statewide initiative unveiled Thursday in Portland aims to double the number of computer science and information technology graduates coming out of the University of Maine campuses in the next four years.

Project>Login, as the initiative has been dubbed, is a private-public partnership between the nonprofit organization Educate Maine, the state’s business community and the University of Maine System.

The initiative was launched to address a projected gap in the number of computer science and IT professionals Maine companies will need to hire in the future. One report published in 2011 by Southern Maine Community College estimates that shortfall will be roughly 977 jobs in the computer science and IT fields by 2018. Only 39 percent of those jobs could be filled at the current rate of graduates.

The initiative has a newly launched website ( http://projectlogin.com/), which will serve as a clearinghouse for information about events and opportunities in the fields of computer science and IT. The website will also act as a portal to allow businesses and computer science and IT students to connect. Businesses will be able to post paid internship opportunities that students will be able to browse and apply for. Students will also be able to post their resumes, which businesses could browse to find a potential intern.

“A goal of this project is that every student who is making good progress … will have an opportunity for a paid internship with the private sector or other organizations as part of their education and as part of their ability to find a foothold in a profession here in Maine,” said James Page, chancellor of the University of Maine System, at Project>Login’s unveiling Thursday morning at the University of Southern Maine.

“This is an important piece for the state to keep these folks here and show them we can provide great profession and lifelong opportunities if they so chose to stay in the state and contribute to our growth longterm,” Page said.

Project>Login was built from the bottom up, and developed with private funding from several businesses and organizations. The idea was hatched at a meeting of business leaders more than two years ago, in December 2010. One of those attending the meeting was Michael Dubyak, the CEO of Wex, a transportation and logistics company that employs more than 600 people at its headquarters in South Portland.

“We wanted to support a healthy economy in the state,” Dubyak said. “We knew we were either moving jobs out of the state or bringing in contractors to fill the roles that we couldn’t find in the state. We wanted to effectively grow jobs and keep our best and brightest in the state. We quickly realized that there was a critical concern affecting all businesses, large and small, in Maine: A significant shortfall of computer technology professionals to help us run our companies.”

This projected gap would have major implications for companies such as Wex, Unum and Idexx Laboratories, which are all partners in the initiative.

“This [workforce gap] is something that would make us either succeed or fail,” said Lance Berberian, chief information officer for Idexx, a biotech company that employs about 1,800 people at its headquarters in Westbrook. “Because our products and our technology is the core of business, and absent that talent we’re in trouble. This is a huge issue for us.”

Page echoed Berberian’s comments. Project>Login “is not something we want to succeed,” Page said. “This is something that must succeed, and will succeed.”

There are computer science or IT degree programs at five of the seven University of Maine campuses (Machias and Presque Isle being the two without), according to Rosa Redonnett, executive director of student affairs at the University of Maine System. In 2012, those universities graduated 71 students with computer science degrees. That means the goal Project>Login has set for itself is for those universities to graduate 142 students in those fields by 2017.

To reach that goal, it will be necessary to keep more students in those programs. The current retention rate for those programs is 33 percent, according to Tanna Clews, executive director of Educate Maine, which is managing Project>Login. One of Project>Login’s short-term goals will be to increase that retention rate to at least 43 percent by next year.

To improve the retention rate, the university system will survey all its computer science and IT students in March, Redonnett said, asking them about the challenges they face and potential stumbling blocks that could spur them to change majors or prevent them from graduating. With that feedback, the universities will provide students with more mentoring services so that, if they hit roadblocks in their progress, they can find help.

From that initial meeting of business leaders back in 2010, the initiative has grown — with the help of the “laser focus” that CEOs possess — into an unprecedented effort that will not only address the current workforce shortage in the computer science and IT fields, but also serve as a template that could be applied in the future to other industries with workforce needs, according to Clews.

The project has a “very ambitious goal, but one that we think we can accomplish with the help of business, educators and certainly students,” Clews said. “Educate Maine took on this program because we felt like it was an excellent opportunity to create a template to address various workforce shortages … In the future we hope we might be able to apply this template to other industries such as nursing or manufacturing or any other area we hear from our business partners that needs to be addressed.”

Redonnett said Project>Login is also significant because it was built from the bottom up.

“Instead of coming down from the government, it’s coming from business, in collaboration with universities and other colleges, ultimately,” Redonnett said. “That’s a big difference. Businesses grabbed right onto it. I think their theory is, ‘We can’t wait for that to happen; we need to make it happen.’”

Project>Login is funded by Bangor Savings Bank, Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems, Idexx, MaineHealth, Maine Medical Center, Pierce Atwood, TD Bank, the University of Maine System, Unum and WEX. More than 50 businesses, schools and organizations are also providing volunteers to the initiative.

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