East Tennessee State University (ETSU), an ACE member, and BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee (BCBST) are teaming up to address an acute technology skills shortage. Tennessee has about four times as many job openings in this sector as Tennesseer who are qualified to fill these positions, so companies operating with open positions have to spend up to a year training new employees or recruiting talent from other states.
ETSU, home to one of Tennessee’s most comprehensive computer science programs, and BCBST, a top state employer, recently launched an intensive program called the BlueSky Tennessee Institute to replenish the talent pipeline. Upon graduation, students earn a bachelor’s degree in Computer Science with a concentration in Information Systems from ETSU and a full-time job offer from BCBST paying over $50,000.
BlueSky has accumulated enough scholarship funds to allow the first cohort to graduate debt-free and intends to repeat this for subsequent classes. The partners hope the affordability of the program and the career security it offers will expand the tech talent pool by attracting students who don’t plan to go to college.
“Earning a college degree is life-changing for our students, and the BlueSky Institute will amplify the impact of higher education with an innovative professional education model that ETSU is proud to embrace,” said Brian Noland, President of ETSU, in announcing the partnership .
BlueSky is characterized by both its compact timeline and its immersiveness. Students attend courses year-round and graduate in just 27 months. Instead of attending the university’s main campus in Johnson City, they study at BCBST’s headquarters in Chattanooga and learn from ETSU professors who reside with them in Chattanooga. The curriculum also includes paid internships at BCBST and personal mentoring from company employees.
Both ETSU and BCBST have dedicated significant resources to ensure BlueSky’s success. ETSU adjusted its computer curriculum to accommodate the program’s accelerated schedule and experiential components, and hired two professors to teach exclusively to BlueSky students. Meanwhile, BCBST hired additional staff, including a student success manager, and renovated thousands of square feet at its headquarters to add classrooms equipped for both in-person and distance learning at the college.
According to JD Hickey, President and CEO of BCBST, these investments are paying off.
“We believe that we are educating the future leaders of our company,” he explained Chattanooga Times Free Press.
The first class of 32 students started their training in the summer. During their first year, students attend classes Monday through Thursday and attend professional development seminars on Fridays. In her second year, her curriculum will combine classes with internships in areas such as cybersecurity, database management, and end-user support.
In the short term, BlueSky’s primary goal is a 100 percent graduation rate, Melissa Graham, the institute’s student success manager, told Google. Your job is to guide students through the challenges of a non-traditional schedule and isolation from most other ETSU students. Your role is critical in ensuring all students stay on track. To that end, BlueSky participants have weekly one-on-one meetings with Graham to assess their academic progress and overall well-being.
BlueSky organizers hope to double the number of faculties over the next year to accommodate larger cohorts and meet unexpected demand. Leaders expected an initial cohort of 15 students, but 32 are enrolled, nearly half of whom are first-generation college students.
For Denis Crnalic, a member of the first BlueSky cohort, the decision to sign up was an easy one.
“‘Something like this, where you can literally land yourself a life-changing job after college, is something you can’t get anywhere else,” Crnalic said Chattanooga Times Free Press.