Technology boot camp connects students, local high-tech industries

In one of Valpak’s executive conference rooms at the company’s headquarters in St. Petersburg’s Gateway community, three teams of students from local colleges play a version of the familiar telephone game from childhood.  

But instead of whispering messages, participants recreate a drawing of an object that’s been quickly sketched on a post-it note.  

The team members have no idea what the object is -- they have to guess by looking at the drawing that’s been passed to them. At the end when the object is revealed, everyone is amused at the different interpretations.

Welcome to day three of the Exploratory Lab Boot Camp, an innovative program that gives local college students a taste of the business world and how to prepare for it.

The game they’ve just played is an experiential learning session -- a team building exercise that highlights the value of face-to-face communication in delivering the right message.  

The five-day boot camp is sponsored by local high-tech firms Tech Data, AgileThought and Valpak, along with the Tampa Bay Technology Forum (TBTF) and St. Petersburg College.

Sessions held at sponsoring organizations highlight everything from team building, critical thinking and networking to how to develop a business plan to bring an IoT (Internet of Things) product or solution to market.

During this year’s program, 23 students from the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, USF Tampa, the University of Tampa, St. Petersburg College and Saint Leo University participated. 

“The program was far beyond what I had expected,” says Tyson Savoretti, a senior at the USFSP majoring in accounting.  

The USFSP career counseling office recommended that he consider applying for the boot camp, which is free to attend, but requires that students to undergo a competitive screening process and agree to attend the entire program -- a 70-hour commitment.

“College provides a great academic curriculum, but it’s not always in alignment with what companies are looking for in job candidates,” says Savoretti. “For example, I never heard in the classroom that being creative would be useful for a 21st century job, but that’s exactly what the companies participating in the boot camp are telling us.”

Read more about his boot camp experience at his blog site.

Putting yourself out there

Amora Lane is also a student at USFSP. She is currently a nutritionist for the health department, but is pursing a second degree in information systems. She hopes that participating in the boot camp will be helpful in making the career switch.

“I saw the program advertised on the Tampa Bay Technology Forum website and consider it a stroke of good luck,” says Lane. “I work full time and took the week off to attend, and would totally do it again. I learned so much, especially about the value of networking and putting myself out there.”

Pat Gehant, managing partner at Gehant & Associates, and Angie McCourt, VP at Cisco Global Strategy & Americas IoT at Tech Data, spearheaded development of the boot camp after a Talent Gap Study in 2012 and 2014 showed a critical shortage of qualified job candidates for open positions at local tech companies.

“When we talked with local tech businesses, we asked why are there so many open jobs when we have so many local colleges,” says Gehant. “They told us that students were coming out not quite prepared with the skills they needed, especially soft skills like critical thinking, decision-making, communication and problem solving.'' Gehant and McCourt also realized that students were unaware of the opportunities that were available to them, especially students earning non-tech degrees. 

“Everyone was complaining about the talent pool not being there, but we realized that students are being educated for predictable careers rather than what might be open to them in technology,” says Gehant. 

According to a Tampa Bay Technology Forum study conducted last summer, “over the last five years, tech jobs in Tampa Bay have grown at almost twice the national average and outgrown every other Florida metro by double-digits.”

A total of four boot camps have been held since the first one launched in 2015. Some 100 students from area colleges have participated. The program is open to not only computer science and business majors, but also students pursuing communications, psychology and even foreign languages.

Nicole Flores was one of two veterans in the most recent program. Flores has an undergraduate degree in engineering from the U.S. Air Force Academy and spent 10 years in the military. Now she’s pursuing an MBA at USF Tampa.

The boot camp was invaluable, she says. “It has been a great at helping us gain a better understanding of how it’s done in the real world,” says Flores. “We don’t get the opportunity to experience corporate culture in the classroom and the boot camp  immersed us in it.”

10-fold increase in participation

Miloslava Plachkinova, Ph.D., assistant professor of Cybersecurity at the University of Tampa, first learned about the boot camp from one of her students, who had received a job offer from Tech Data after graduating from the program. This time, 10 of her students participated.  

“I was happy to see so many of my students in the Exploratory Lab Boot Camp and I will continue to support the program because I think it bridges the gap between theory and practice,” says Plachkinova. “Students gain valuable lessons in how to work in teams and face the business challenges in the real world. It also provides great opportunities for students to learn and to network with industry leaders. “

Plachkinova says she is impressed with the high placement rate of the program. According to Gehant, 89 percent of students either receive job or internship offers from local tech firms within 12 months after graduating from the boot camp. 

Savoretti leveraged his participation in the program to earn an internship as a compliance process intern at Raymond James Financial with the potential for full-time employment in the future.

“I am grateful for the very real-life education that was provided during the program,” says Savoretti. “Raymond James, like many of the Tampa Bay Area companies, is very interested in hiring people who have a diverse skill set and a focus on how to change business processes in the future. This was the overall focus of the Ex Labs.”

Daniel James Scott, executive director of the Tampa Bay Technology Forum, applauds the commitment that local businesses, especially Tech Data, Valpak and AgileThought have made to the success of the boot camp.

“Instead of just underwriting the program, they are loaning their executives who are giving us an extraordinary amount of their time,” says Scott. “These companies are saying this program is so important to us that we are willing to commit our executive’s time and talent to make the program meaningful.''

Starting this fall, Sogeti, an IT services company, will also be lending its support as one of the sponsoring high-tech firms. 

Carolyn Eagen is an account executive with Sogeti USA. She says the company’s involvement is related to the firm’s desire to recruit and retain good local talent. 

“I don’t want students to think they have to leave the area to find a good job with a good company,” says Eagen. “I’m a third generation Tampa native and I want to keep our talent here. I don’t want to see a brain drain.”

Read more articles by Janan Talafer.

Janan Talafer enjoys writing for a diverse group of clients, including print and online publications, nonprofit organizations and public relations agencies. One of the highlights of her writing career was flying with the 91st Air Refueling Squadron out of MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa FL for a feature about this elite military team. A journalism graduate of Bowling Green State University (OH), Janan’s early career was in health care marketing and public relations for hospitals in Connecticut and Tampa Bay. She is an avid gardener, loves East Coast swing dance and enjoys touring around St. Petersburg on the back of her husband’s scooter.
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