ICYMI: TO GROW TECH IN NYC, DON’T HOPE FOR SKILLED STUDENTS—MAKE THEM

A Firm Designed Cuny Courses and Promised Student Jobs. It Worked

Crain’s New York Business
By Charles Phillips

In 2012, New York City was not the Silicon Alley we know today. There was disappointingly little to show in the market when it came to technology talent. Yet, as CEO of Infor, a multi-billion-dollar software company with 16,000 employees, I somehow persuaded my Silicon Valley-based board of directors to let me move the company to New York City. While the local tech economy had a long way to go, many of our 90,000 customers regularly visit New York, the capital of the business world. There was a strong business case to move, but I knew it would require some significant investment in the local tech community to be sustainable.

What I’ve learned over the last five years is that if you build it, they will come.

Fresh, creative thinking is essential to innovation in tech. But in 2012, I didn’t see a pipeline for the skillsets my business needed in New York. Finding college graduates with relevant skills turned out to be a challenge—partly because many students think of technology as smartphones, web design and social media. In reality, there are far more jobs to be found in the complex world of enterprise technology, including business solutions and application software. For example, enterprise resource planning applications contain millions of lines of code that automate every company’s critical business functions, from finance and payroll to production, supply chains, customer service and commerce.

While the skills gap in enterprise tech was immense, recent college graduates were struggling to find entry-level jobs. Sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roska tracked 1,000 college students and found that two years after graduation, only a quarter earned over $40,000 in a full-time job. Survey results showed one in four of the students living at home two years after graduation, a rate almost double what it was in the 1960s. That didn’t make sense to me. I realized that if I wanted great talent to work at my company, I needed to invest in development at the post-secondary level. This wasn’t just about improving the education system, it was about broadening access to STEM-related training and careers.

Historically companies put fresh graduates through elaborate training programs to develop specific skills around business applications. Now, many companies are increasingly hiring offshore or from competitors. I believe more can be done to drive job readiness, particularly in the New York market.

To start, I met with Chancellor Jim Milliken at City University of New York. As the third largest university system in the country (after those of the entire states of California and New York), CUNY has a long tradition of providing immigrants and first-generation college graduates a pathway to better careers. Most of its students speak a second language. The chancellor was looking to differentiate CUNY by producing career-ready graduates—of course without compromising on developing critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing skills.

It was the perfect partnership. CUNY wanted to set up its graduates for real-world success, and Infor needed skilled talent. We designed two courses on Infor’s software and offered students that passed both courses and the certification exam a guaranteed job at Infor or one of its customers or partners. The first class to learn Infor CloudSuite Industrial, an application that automates manufacturing companies, was oversubscribed threefold, and one-third of students who applied were at the graduate level. It was an “aha” moment for us.

One remaining issue was that many student loan programs and grants do not allow course credit for nonacademic skills training. So the courses we created to provide marketable technology skills could not be offered for credit. This meant we had to not only persuade professors but also fund their training and curriculum development, and provide cloud environments where the curriculum could live, in addition to internships. This kind of job-readiness framework would be an easy win for a federal program, and could also help higher-ed institutions to differentiate themselves and attract students.

Academia may need convincing, but CUNY is showing this model works—and students certainly see the need for career development in addition to academic development. They form their own communities on LinkedIn, and Infor also established a skills marketplace on the platform. There, students can market themselves to our customers and partners, some of which participate as guest speakers in our courses.

We are expanding this effort, offering new courses, and have started to see positive results in our own company and across the technology landscape in New York. We’re committed to driving this change and making New York into a true Silicon Valley competitor—the kind of leader in tech innovation and talent I believe it should to be.

I hope we’ll be joined in this effort by others in academia and the public and private sectors. As part of a New York-based company, my business depends on it.

Charles Phillips is CEO of Infor and a former president of Oracle.