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Why we’re bringing university students on-site as a career launchpad

Originally published in The Tennessean, July 2021

As a former educator with Teach for America, I taught many dedicated students who dealt with a level of generational poverty unlike anything I’d seen.

Witnessing these students apply themselves and make progress was inspiring. But even though a year in the classroom can be transformational, it’s just that — a single year. And I saw many former students five or 10 years later stuck in the same systemic circumstances as their parents — their education incomplete, their jobs unfulfilling, their lives a struggle.

I realized my calling was to find other ways to help students succeed in the long-term. For me, that means being part of large-scale change and finding opportunities for them to make the leap not only to higher education, but to actual marketable skills and career prospects.

In my role at BlueCross, I’ve worked with our senior leadership to devise a groundbreaking solution not just for students, but for employers who, like BlueCross, need to address an urgent business need for specialized talent.

A bright BlueSky

Through a partnership with East Tennessee State University (ETSU), the BlueSky Technology Institute was established this year to provide students the opportunity to earn a bachelor’s degree in computing (concentration in information systems) in 27 months and a job offer from BlueCross.

Technology is a dynamic, rapidly growing field; employers can’t find enough people with these skillsets locally, forcing them to outsource jobs. The BlueSky Institute aims not just to develop much-needed technology talent at BlueCross, but to serve as a replicable model for other companies to help prepare the next generation of technology leaders.

Students will learn on site in a new facility at the BlueCross corporate headquarters in Chattanooga  and receive support and mentorship from a team of individuals who care deeply about their success. It benefits us, as well. By allowing these students to contribute in a hands-on way, if they’re offered and then accept a job with BlueCross, they can onboard more quickly and start making an immediate difference.

This program was implemented out of corporate necessity, but it’s also a path to helping our communities, our state and our country grow stronger. Looking at Tennessee data alone, there’s roughly a 4-to-1 disparity in terms of jobs from employers that require an IT background compared to Tennessee college and university graduates with those degrees.

For this type of initiative to be successful, you need a senior leadership team willing to put their credibility, their relationship capital and their financial capital on the line. We’re fortunate to have that, but BlueCross obviously can’t confer degrees itself. ETSU has been an ideal partner because of their willingness, flexibility and excitement about doing this with us. Their involvement was key to the Tennessee Higher Education Commission approving the BlueSky Institute and our movement forward.

Serving as an example

With the BlueSky Institute as the catalyst, we hope our model benefits students, employers, customers and communities alike.  Additional university-level programs supported by employers could be applied to other areas — think nursing, accounting, or anywhere we see a growing need and not enough qualified local candidates to address it.

For students passionate about the tech field, we’ve developed a unique program in Chattanooga that connects you with an accredited university that’s been recognized as offering the best computing degrees in Tennessee and the opportunity to embark on a meaningful career.

Our next step is a big one — to lead by example and make it work. We’ve just began accepting applications for our first cohort. And our hope is that we can open doors not only for students to be successful but meet a business need to better serve our members.

About Bradley Leon, Executive Director, BlueSky Tennessee Institute

A photo of the authorBradley Leon is executive director of the BlueSky Tennessee Institute. He is responsible for leading this groundbreaking workforce development program, which offers students the chance to earn a bachelor’s degree in computing and a job offer from BlueCross in just over two years.

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