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Contributed photo by Dan Henry/ BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee CEO JD Hickey, left, talks to Hixson High School senior Brooke Acevedo, left, and her stepfather, Jose Garcia, at the BlueSky Institute open house at BlueCross headquarters on Saturday.

Brooke Acevedo has been fascinated with computer games on her Xbox since her father introduced her to such pursuits as a young child.

"I like to create things on the computer, and I feel like computer science is a great gateway to make that happen," she said.

The Hixson High School senior said she is eager to turn her interest in game design and computer programming into a future in her hometown at 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 expedite the traditional four years to get a bachelor's degree in computer science to begin making money sooner.

A new initiative being launched by Chattanooga's biggest private employer seems ideal to her.

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

(READ MORE: BlueCross, ETSU create BlueSky Institute to address shortage of technology graduates)

J.D. Hickey, president and CEO of BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, said the institute is needed to help fill the talent pipeline for the Chattanooga-based health insurer as it has evolved over its 76-year history from clerical claims processor to more of a clinical company to its future as a business focused on information technology.

"We are a data science company," Hickey said. "That's how we add value for our customers, how we differentiate ourselves from our competitors and increasingly how we hire new workers."

 

Investing in future talent

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

BlueCross tries to hire 50 to 100 new information systems and technology workers a year, "and it's an understatement to say we're not getting the quality or the quantity of IS-trained tech students out of the post-secondary institutions that we need," Hickey said.

The BlueSky Institute is designed to develop far more than the next generation of entry-level computer programmers.

"This is the future of our company to make sure we can solidify the talent pipeline," Hickey said. "We believe we are training the future senior leadership of our company."

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Contributed photo by Dan Henry / Sequoyah High School student Ashton McRoy, right, talks to BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee CEO JD Hickey and BlueSky Institute executive director Brad Leon at the BlueSky Institute open house Dec. 11

By partnering with East Tennessee State University and tapping into federal Pell grants, state HOPE scholarships and other financial aid programs, BlueCross expects to keep its own investment in the program at a reasonable level and limit what it now has to spend on job-specific training of computer science graduates it now hires and who often have to undergo 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 created, and officials hope that most, if not all, of the tuition costs for the program for many modest-income students will be largely paid in grants and scholarships, and students will be eligible for paid internships to help offset any living expenses they have.

Denis Crnalic, an East Hamilton High senior, said he is eager to start working and take on less student debt than traditional four-year bachelor's degrees.

"Something like this, where you can be guaranteed a job that is literally life-changing after you get out of college is something you really can't get anywhere else," he said during a weekend open house for the BlueSky Institute.

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

"Having this type of accelerated program with a guaranteed job when you graduate is the kind of package deal I've been waiting for," he said.

Graduates in good standing from the BlueSky Institute will be guaranteed a job at BlueCross with a starting pay, in most instances, above $60,000 a year. But graduates are free to work elsewhere if they choose.

 

Diversifying recruitment

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

"We do think this will have a positive community and social impact and help the lives of many people, but we don't approach this from a charitable perspective," Hickey said. "We think this will have a solid return on investment."

The program is designed to fill the growing gap in technology skills and job openings in Tennessee. Last year, only 1,000 information system and technology students graduated from Tennessee colleges, even though there are 4,100 open tech jobs.

Brad Leon, who joined BlueCross after serving as chief of strategy and performance management for Shelby County Schools in Memphis, said he thinks BlueSky can be a model for how business and educational institutions work together to train workers of the future.

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

 

Learning on site

While many universities have internship programs and other partnerships with local employers, the BlueSky Institute is unique in embedding the students at the BlueCross headquarters atop Cameron Hill in downtown Chattanooga where students will not only take college classes but work with mentors from BlueCross on real-life projects.

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

(READ MORE: ETSU president, former Tennessee House speaker to join TVA board)

East Tennessee State, which will initially provide two faculty members next fall and grow the faculty staff to four as the program grows, was already recognized this year by both ranking websites CollegeFactual.com and Universities.com for having the best computer science undergraduate program in Tennessee.

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

Leon said the unique program offers tremendous potential for those who enroll and work hard for success.

"With this program, you could be a 20-year-old graduating from college making up to $65,000 a year and on a leadership pipeline for a great company like BlueCross," he said. "There's truly nothing like this in the world and a tremendous opportunity for people who want a degree and advancement in a field that is going to be relevant and dynamic for at least the next 50 years."

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6340.

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