The program aims to train tech workers in the Chattanooga area for the future

Brooke Acevedo has been fascinated by computer games on her Xbox ever since her father introduced her to such activities when she was young.

“I like to create things on the computer, and I feel like computing is a great gateway to make it happen,” she said.

The Hixson High School senior said she looks forward to turning her interest in game design and computer programming into a future in her hometown in a company where she hopes to build a career. The 18-year-old said she doesn’t want to stay in college for years and would like to speed up the traditional four years to get a bachelor’s degree in computer science to start making money earlier.

A new initiative launched by the largest private employer in Chattanooga seems ideal.

BlueCross BlueShield of Tenessee is teaming up with East Tennessee State University to launch an accelerated computer science studies program at the BlueCross campus, starting in fall 2022. Called BlueSky Institute, the 27-month program will combine college courses with real work and internships. at BlueCross with corporate mentors to help prepare the next generation of information technology leaders seen as key to the insurer’s future.

(READ MORE: BlueCross and ETSU create BlueSky Institute to address tech graduate shortage)

JD Hickey, president and CEO of BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, said the institute is needed to help fill the talent pool for the Chattanooga-based health insurer as he has grown over his 76 years of history from desktop claims processor to more than one clinical business to its future as an information technology driven company.

“We are a data science company,” Hickey said. “This is how we add value for our customers, how we differentiate ourselves from our competition and increasingly how we hire new workers.”

Invest in future talents

While the new BlueSky Institute has already attracted dozens of applicants and continues to generate interest in its first class next year, attracting enough students to study computing and technology remains a challenge for BlueCross and many. other companies.

BlueCross tries to hire 50 to 100 new information systems and technology workers per year, “to put it mildly to say that we are not getting the quality or quantity of technology students trained in IF in post-secondary institutions we need, ”Hickey says.

The BlueSky Institute is designed to develop much more than the next generation of novice computer programmers.

“This is the future of our business to make sure we can build the talent pool,” Hickey said. “We believe that we are training the future senior leaders of our company.”

Photo by Dan Henry / Sequoyah High School student Ashton McRoy, right, chats with BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee CEO JD Hickey and BlueSky Institute executive director Brad Leon during the open house at the BlueSky Institute, December 11.

By partnering with East Tennessee State University and leveraging Federal Pell Grants, HOPE State Scholarships, and other financial aid programs, BlueCross expects to maintain its own investment in the program at a reasonable level and limit what he now has to spend on job-specific training. computer science graduates that she now hires who often need extensive on-the-job training to understand BlueCross systems.

Lower cost college option

For students, a scholarship fund at East Tennessee State University is being established, and officials hope that most, if not all, of the program’s tuition fees for many low-income students will be. largely paid in the form of grants and scholarships, and students qualify for paid internships to help offset living expenses they have.

Denis Crnalic, a senior at East Hamilton High, said he was eager to start work and take on less student debt than traditional four-year bachelor’s degrees.

“Something like that, where you can be assured of a job that literally changes your life after you graduate from college is something you really can’t find anywhere else,” he said in a statement. open day for the BlueSky Institute.

Kyah Dollinger, 20, graduated from Heritage High School last year and is also eager to start preparing for a career in IT.

“Having this type of fast-track program with guaranteed employment when you graduate is the kind of package I’ve been waiting for,” he said.

BlueSky Institute graduates in good standing will be guaranteed employment with BlueCross with a starting salary, in most cases, greater than $ 60,000 per year. But graduates are free to work elsewhere if they wish.

Diversify recruitment

The BlueSky Institute aims to serve the community by recruiting students from six priority high schools in Hamilton County schools: Brainerd, East Ridge, Hixson, Howard, Red Bank and Tyner.

“We believe this will have a positive community and social impact and will help the lives of many people, but we are not approaching this from a charitable perspective,” Hickey said. “We believe this will have a solid return on investment.”

The program is designed to address the growing lack of technological skills and employment opportunities in Tennessee. Last year, just 1,000 information systems and technology students graduated from colleges in Tennessee, even though there are 4,100 technology jobs open.

Brad Leon, who joined BlueCross after serving as head of strategy and performance management for Shelby County Schools in Memphis, said he believes BlueSky can be a role model for how businesses and educational institutions are working together to train the workers of the future.

“It’s exciting to be a part of something that I think could be transformational, not just for the business but for the students themselves in our community,” said Leon.

Learn on the spot

While many universities have internship programs and other partnerships with local employers, the BlueSky Institute is unique in integrating students at BlueCross headquarters at the top of Cameron Hill in downtown Chattanooga where students will not only attend. college courses, but will work with real-life BlueCross mentors. projects.

BlueCross recently renovated 6,300 square feet of its corporate headquarters complex to add four classrooms with new audio-visual technology to facilitate both in-person learning at Chattanooga and virtual classes at the East Tennessee State University campus. in Johnson City.

(READ MORE: ETSU President, Former Tennessee House Lecturer, to Join TVA Board of Directors)

The state of eastern Tennessee, which will initially provide two faculty members next fall and increase faculty to four as the program grows, has already been recognized this year by both ranking websites. and for having the best undergraduate computer science program in Tennessee.

The Oct. 15 deadline for initial applications for next fall’s program drew 39 applicants, of whom 28 people were interviewed. The next application deadline is Wednesday, and the final selection for the new class is expected this winter.

Leon said the unique program offers tremendous potential for those who sign up and work hard to be successful.

“With this program, you could be a 20-year-old graduating from college, earning up to $ 65,000 a year and on a leadership pipeline for a big company like BlueCross,” he said. “There really is nothing like it in the world and a tremendous opportunity for people who want to graduate and advance in a field that will be relevant and dynamic for at least the next 50 years.”

Contact Dave Flessner at [email protected] or 423-757-6340.

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