woman - IT desk

A Tennessee employer is partnering with a higher-ed institution to create a tech talent pipeline

Students can earn a college degree and land a job in just over two years

In Tennessee, a health insurer is partnering with higher education to create an accelerated program to develop local talent to fill tech jobs.

The BlueSky Institute was created by BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee (BlueCross) and Eastern Tennessee State University (ETSU). Launched in August, students have the opportunity to earn a bachelor’s degree in computing and a job offer at BlueCross in 27 months.

Jennifer Weaver, senior VP and CIO, BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee

“BlueCross is a health insurer, but in many ways we’re a technology company. So much of how we support our members comes from our ability to effectively deliver technology solutions for our employees and those we serve,” says Jennifer Weaver, senior vice president and chief information officer for BlueCross.

“We have close to 1,000 information technology professionals, but at any given point, we have 100-plus open positions. And we know that we’re just one of many, many organizations across the country with a need for qualified tech talent that can support our work.”

ETSU already offers an ABET-accredited bachelor of science in computing with a concentration in information systems. That serves as the foundation for the BlueSky curriculum which addresses cybersecurity and application development. Classes are held Monday through Thursday. On Friday, every student has access to a student success counselor who provides academic and social support.

Brian Noland, Ph.D., president, Eastern Tennessee State University

In addition to the classwork, students engage in a series of paid internships that expose them to a variety of IT roles. By the time they graduate, students may have gained experience in cybersecurity, systems management, end user support, database creation and management, application support, and more.

Recruiting is mostly focused on high schools in Hamilton County – near the BlueCross headquarters – but anyone who meets the qualifications is eligible, including adult learners. All applicants must have a 2.3 grade point average (out of a 4.0 scale), and an ACT score of 17 or higher (or equivalent SAT score).

“Colleges across the nation are balancing the tension between teaching students the skills required to make a living while also igniting their passions and purpose. At ETSU, we believe the two are inextricably linked. Preparing our students for meaningful and rewarding careers is integral to building an impactful life. Our institutional mission to improve the quality of life for others is simply the foundation,” says Brian Noland, Ph.D., ETSU president.

The First in the Family to Attend College

The focused recruiting includes reaching into underrepresented and underserved communities. BlueSky student Sandra Mejia learned about the program in her junior year of high school. She is the first in her family to attend college.

Sandra Mejia, student, BlueSky Institute

“I’ve been interested in technology from an early age. I recall checking out the computers at school as a child, and I especially remember the fascination I felt when my family got our first smartphone. I saw all the things it could do, and how different it was from the house phones and flip phones,” says Mejia.

She continues, “Over the years, I’ve helped my family and friends troubleshoot tech issues, and it’s something I still do. Technology is ultimately about helping, and that’s important to me. Also, technology is always changing and there’s always something new – this is a field that offers a unique opportunity to contribute something important to the world, which is exciting.”

Upon Completion, a College Degree and a Job

Tuition for the first two years of the program ranges from $20,442 to $23,277, depending on the student’s location of residence – costing more for those out of state – and close to $6,000 the third year. But all students admitted into the program are considered for scholarships and, as a result, most are attending at no cost.  

The first cohort includes 32 students, of which 14 are first-generation college students, 12 are women and 11 are students of color.

Bradley Leon, executive director, BlueSky Institute

“Those demographics are more diverse than the tech industry at large, and we’re proud to make that happen with focused effort,” says Bradley Leon, BlueSky Institute executive director.

Upon completion, graduates can earn a starting salary of $50,000-$60,000, considered well above the area’s average, as well as benefits.

BlueSky leaders hope their program can be a model for other companies. They have set the goal of achieving a 100% graduation and employment rate.

Mejia expects to meet that goal.

“I feel that what I’m learning can help me make a difference and serve as an example for my family and friends. Already, I feel BlueSky has helped expand my understanding of different thought processes and approaches to problem-solving. I believe this program is helping us to learn how to learn across disciplines, establish relationships, and ultimately transition smoothly into the professional world,” she says.

“College is when you establish the foundation not only for your career, but for your lifestyle as well. The program, cohort, and staff have established a competitive yet supportive environment. We are not afraid of making mistakes. The program is allowing us to surpass challenges and to envision each of our own unique paths,” says Mejia.