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Agile Education: USFSP’s Ex-Labs bridges the skills gap

Megan Holmes




Part seven in a series.

Pat Gehant graduated from the University of South Florida with a degree in history. She went on to become the IT Director at JWB, for 14 years.

Angie McCourt studied fashion merchandising. She has worked for Tech Data since 2000, her latest position is as Vice President of Cisco Solutions at Tech Data.

These trajectories are what you might call non-traditional – but they exemplify an important truth of today’s tech industry – degrees in IT and computer science are not the only recipe for tech success.

Pat Gehant, center.

Gehant and McCourt together founded a program called Exploratory Labs (Ex-Labs for short). This program, held at USFSP’s Kate Tiedemann College of Business, provides real-life tech training open to students of all majors – encouraging those who may not consider a tech profession but who may have the skills to succeed in one to give the field a try.

The program grew out of a 2012 study on the IT Talent Gap in the Tampa Bay Area, conducted by Tampa Bay Tech and Tampa-Hillsborough EDC.

It was (and remains) widely known that companies in the area were struggling to find talent to fill the many tech openings. The study found that many local students were unfamiliar with the tech companies in the area. In fact, some were under the impression that they would have to move to cities like Austin or San Franscisco to start a career in tech, despite the vast number of tech companies in the area. Similarly, employers felt that the candidates that did seek jobs were not sufficiently qualified for many of the positions.

During the 2012 study, companies expressed their willingness to train employees – to teach them coding and other hard skills – if they were the right cultural fit, and if the company believed that they would be successful. However, there was no mechanism for the companies to find such talent, and no awareness among students to seek out these opportunities.

That’s where Ex-Labs steps in. They seek to bridge the gap between businesses and universities. In her role, Pat

Ex-Labs student bootcamp

Gehant acts as the liason between business and educational institutions – two entities that often speak different languages – to not only teach students to be more successful in the competitive job market, but also to teach companies how to find and hire the right talent.

The program’s success speaks for itself. According to Gehant, Tech Data has hired 30 graduates over the seven sessions of the program. In fact, they’ve wanted to hire even more, but some graduates went on to take opportunities with other companies in the area.

While the program was developed by Tech Data, Gehant says the curriculum is “agnostic” and that they will be gathering a group of mid-sized businesses to run the program over the next few years – to open up the learning (and hiring) opportunities for both the students and the businesses to a wider array of tech fields.

Students not only gain a familiarity with local tech companies and opportunities, but also develop skills both

Ex-Labs students presenting their project.

soft skills such as problem solving, leadership and networking, as well as hard skills like data analytics.

“I’m the interpreter and the negotiator trying to get things in sync,” says Gehant. “And it’s that part eventually we’d like to standardize and put into a university or into an entity.

“That says this is a Talent Development Program that is in the community, and run by business in partnership with education. So that’s the long-term.”

Click the arrow at the top of the page to hear Pat Gehant talk Agile Education & Ex-Labs with St. Pete Catalyst publisher Joe Hamilton.

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