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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / BlueSky Tennessee Institute Executive Director Brad Leon poses outside of the BlueCross BlueShield complex on Friday, March 5, 2021 in Chattanooga, Tenn. BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee is starting the BlueSky Institute, an accelerated two-year bachelorÕs degree program to train students to work in technology fields. The institute will be in partnership with East Tennessee State University and graduates will receive a degree from ETSU. Brad Leon executive director of the institute.

Most of the workers at Chattanooga's biggest employer continue to work remotely and no longer do their jobs from the BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee campus atop Cameron Hill.

But on Monday, students in a pioneering new educational venture gathered at the BlueCross headquarters for an inaugural meeting with executive and IT mentors as they prepare for a 27-month training program to provide the students the computer skills to help meet the growing IT talent needs at BlueCross and other employers.

College life for the initial class of 32 students will consist of both classes and real-life IT applications at the BlueCross campus.

The students selected for the first class of the new BlueSky Tennessee Institute are enrolled at East Tennessee State University, where they will be awarded bachelor's degrees in computer science if they complete the program. But their classes and training will all be in Chattanooga, more than 200 miles from the main ETSU campus at Johnson City.

Autumn Harrison, a recent graduate of Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy, is among the freshman class that will begin her college career with classes on Cameron Hill on Aug. 27. Harrison said she has been intrigued with computers since she began in second grade trying to help her mom navigate the computer while her mother was taking college courses.

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BlueSky Tennessee Institute

'I've loved technology ever since I was a small child, and for my senior project in high school I made a website as a kind of tutoring online service for middle schoolers," she said during a reception for students at BlueCross on Monday. "I first thought I wanted to go to UTC for college, but when I started hearing about the BlueSky Institute and all of the benefits and opportunities, I realized this was a great opportunity to get my career started much more quickly."

By having classes year around and working most of the day on both academic and applied projects at BlueCross, students will earn a bachelor's degree that would normally take four years in just over two years time.

BlueCross also is eager to hire and begin promoting the graduates of the BlueSky Institute. Jennifer Weaver, senior vice president and chief information officer for BlueCross, said the Chattanooga-based insurer employs about 950 IT workers and filling all of those jobs has been especially difficult in the current tight labor market.

"We hope this BlueSky can help to fill our talent pipeline as well as to bring some new and young workers on staff to add new energy and ideas to our operation," Weaver said in an interview with the Chattanooga Times Free Press.

BlueSky Institute's accelerated bachelor's degree will provide a new pathway into one of the fastest-growing careers in the nation. Tennessee has roughly 4,100 technology job postings per year and only 1,000 qualified graduates to fill them.

BlueCross President J.D. Hickey said his company has more open cybersecurity and coding jobs than it can fill with local talent.

"The work of serving BlueCross members has become increasingly technology-driven," Hickey said in a statement about the new initiative. "With BlueSky Institute, we can meet a critical business need while expanding opportunities for students in our community."

ETSU will deploy its ABET-accredited Bachelor of Science in Computing with a concentration in information systems in an accelerated format to serve as the foundation for BlueSky Insititute's curriculum. ABET is the premier global accreditor for computing programs, and ETSU's program offers coursework in high-demand fields such as cybersecurity, cloud computing, wireless computing, data analytics, health care information systems and more.

"Earning a college degree is transformational to the lives of our students, and the BlueSky Institute will further the impact of higher education with an innovative job training model that ETSU is proud to join," ETSU President Brian Noland said in a statement.

BlueSky Tennessee Institute Executive Director Brad Leon said about 90 students applied for the new program this spring and 33 were selected to participate — of which 32 accepted the offer.

"I thought it was a fantastic and very competitive application process, and we're delighted by the quality and passion of the students we've enrolled," Leon said in an interview Monday.

Half of the students came from schools that were considered academically or economically challenged, with lower than average college enrollment and success from their graduates. To help ensure the success of BlueSky students, a student success officer, Melissa Graham, will work with the students, and each enrollee has been assigned both an executive and an IT mentor from BlueCross.

Jayden Davis, who graduated from Ooltewah High School this spring, said the chance to get a degree in a couple of years and work at a business such as BlueCross enticed him to apply for the BlueSky Institute. Davis said he has always had an interest in computers and built his own personal computer at age 16, which he still uses.

"This seems like a great opportunity to develop my skills and career," Davis said in an interview Monday.

The program not only has free tuition for those selected to participate, it offers paid internships for students to make money in their second year in the program.

Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Justin Robertson praised the new initiative and BlueCross's support for the innovative college program.

"We're excited to see this level of community support and the commitment by BlueCross to this program that will lead to employment for many of our graduates," Robertson said. "Hopefully, this will be a model for what we can do in a lot of areas of our community."

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6340. Follow on Twitter at @dflessner1.

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