East Tennessee State University

Accelerating Education and Experience to Fill Tech Job Shortages

A public/private partnership led to the creation of a groundbreaking program in which students can earn real-life work experience and bachelor’s degrees to meet immediate labor shortages in information technology and advanced cybersecurity fields.

To secure a talent pipeline in the fields of information technology and advanced cybersecurity, BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee (BCBST) approached East Tennessee State University (ETSU). Beginning in 2019, they began developing what would become the BlueSky Tennessee Institute, which would embrace all emerging best practices in the information technology and data science fields. The health plan provider intended for an accelerated degree pathway to address the workforce availability challenge it has confronted in these fields. When BCBST first approached the university, it employed 930 tech workers and outsourced 120 jobs. Fifty positions were open at the time, and in recent years, BCBST consistently had 50 or more vacant positions in this part of its organization. The BlueSky Tennessee Institute found that the Tennessee universities were not producing enough qualified graduates. In 2018, the universities graduated only 900 in-state students for 4,500 job openings for graduates with less than two years of experience, according to the Tennessee Labor Department.

Through extensive collaboration, BCBST and ETSU created curriculum and organized the internships and job-embedded experiences for the BlueSky Institute. They further leveraged the insurer’s brand strength and the university’s credibility to attract students. This opportunity was extended, in particular, to potential students in underserved populations who might not otherwise attend college. To make the program affordable, scholarships and other aid are offered to qualified students, making this opportunity of little to no cost to the student.

The institute’s inaugural cohort began in the summer of 2022 with the first graduating class expected in December 2024. In less than two and a half years, students in the BlueSky Institute graduate with bachelor’s degrees in computing with a concentration in information systems, as well as hands-on experience working in real-world business environments. Upon successful completion of the program, graduates are offered employment at the health plan provider in Chattanooga, Tennessee. There is no obligation for the students to accept this offer.

The Methodology

To plug labor shortages in the information technology and data science fields, ETSU developed BlueSky Tennessee Institute with BCBST. This 27-month accelerated pathway awards an ABET-accredited B.S. in computing with a concentration in information systems to successful graduates. Students must be admitted to the university and then be accepted into the institute, which involves a separate application process. All courses relating to their computing major—including information systems, information technology, computer science, cybersecurity, and modern networks—are taking place at the institute’s campus at BCBST headquarters in Chattanooga. On-site, university faculty and a student support manager work with BCBST personnel to support this program. General education courses are offered online.

Students also participate in work-based learning internships as BCBST trainees, supporting business projects. BCBST employees companywide—including the CEO and all members of the president’s executive team—mentor BlueSky students, teaching them to build trust and develop productive working relationships. Upon graduation, students will have a portfolio demonstrating what they’ve learned and created during the program.

Making this program affordable, particularly for students from underserved populations, involved scholarships and other student supports from Chattanooga area educational foundations and BCBST covering the cost of program delivery.

The Impact

The collaboration between ETSU and BCBST could be a game-changer for communities and institutions as they build the next generation. This partnership exhibits a pattern—not just one involving an alliance of public and private entities, but one where a university and industry band together to develop the workforce. The benefits of this partnership reverberate into building the public trust to combat the belief that a college degree is “not worth it.”

The program’s impact was felt immediately. Enrollment in the BlueSky Institute exceeded expectations. Roughly double the number of students joined the first cohort from the anticipated 15 to 20 individuals to the actual 32 enrollees. ETSU and BCBST hope for future cohorts of 50 or more students.

Successful graduates are guaranteed a full-time job offer with full benefits from BCBST; however, they can elect to work for another employer without facing any kind of financial (or other) penalty. Still, BCBST is hoping to build relationships with students throughout their studies to motivate them to want to work at BCBST.

Key Takeaways

For nearly three years, ETSU collaborated with BCBST in creating the coursework and job-embedded experience for the BlueSky Tennessee Institute. BCBST shared the skills it needed and research on the extent of the labor shortage in the area. The university aligned these skills with its courses and programs and worked with BCBST to develop internships and work-based learning activities. This candid partnership also blossomed into a solid trust between the two organizations in preparing students to excel not just at BCBST but at any high-tech contemporary organization. In addition, the skills and outcomes in the BlueSky Institute informed curriculum revisions in the university’s other programs.

This initiative targeted students from underserved communities who may not otherwise have attended the university. Scholarships and other financial assistance were made available to qualified students based on their financial need, academic preparation, high school involvement and curriculum, interest in computing, and other information provided on their application. Through this aid, the program is little to no cost to the student and their family.

We are excited for what the future holds for each of these students, and we are proud to be the educational partner for this innovative program that provides a solution to a critical workforce need. The BlueSky Institute will expand opportunities and open doors, truly making a difference for people across the region and beyond.

Dr. Brian Noland, president, East Tennessee State University

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