Pontotoc • Many people might think that Northeast Mississippi wouldn’t have a wide selection of information technology (IT) jobs, but the job opportunities are virtually endless for students in the region.

Several Pontotoc High School students interested in careers in IT work recently visited the school’s Tech Skills Lab to read through Imagine the Possibilities Career Expo material and gain firsthand knowledge from local professionals.

Jeremy Ray, a sophomore at Pontotoc High School hopes to pursue a career as a computer science engineer or network architect after graduating high school. He enrolled in Exploring Computer Science and AP Computer Science Principles classes last year, which helped him obtain a foundational understanding of what it takes to work in IT and helped him explore different job options.

Jacen Barefoot, a senior at Pontotoc High School, said he’s interested in becoming an IT support technician or working in cyber security. He’s taken computer science classes and is currently enrolled in a Career Tech Skills class where he’s been exposed to many new IT career options via the virtual Imagine the Possibilities Career Expo.

“All of the videos have helped me,” Barefoot said. “The day in the life videos shows what they do every day, and I think that definitely helped me to narrow down my choices.”

He hopes to attend the Base Camp Coding Academy in Water Valley after graduation to continue developing his skills.

The coding academy represents a major opportunity for high school students looking to enter the IT field. It’s a 12-month training program that students can apply for after being nominated by a teacher during their senior year. A group of 15 to 20 students are ultimately selected to enroll. Participation in the program is free for every student accepted, thanks to support from business and philanthropic leaders in Mississippi.

Jennifer Dale, career coach at Pontotoc High School, has worked in education for 29 years. She had previously worked as a school counselor, but came back to work for CREATE Foundation, Inc., which sponsors the expo.

According to Dale, the best part of her job is “seeing students realize their aptitudes for the first time” as they discover opportunities that excite them.

Prior to the pandemic, Dale would schedule visits from various IT professionals as part of a program called Career Cafe. This semester, business and industry leaders have visited with students via Zoom, but students also have the opportunity to chat with the district’s two full-time IT workers when they visit campus.

Dale said the school’s college and career readiness program helps to promote IT careers and students are introduced to high-need career areas in Northeast Mississippi, which includes IT.

High-demand roles within the IT field in Northeast Mississippi, according to The Skills Foundation of Mississippi’s “Get on the Grid” website, range from Healthcare Data Entry Technician or Graphics Design Technologist to Information Security Technologist.

Jesse Bandre and Ken Dale, co-owners of Exceed Technologies Tupelo, are pathfinders for the IT pathway of the Imagine the Possibilities Career Expo this year, were tasked with helping answer student questions and marketing the IT field’s various career options to them.

Ken Dale, who has been in the business since the early 1990s, and Bandre, who got started in 2004, have been involved with the career expo for several years now. Typically, they would set up computers, networking displays and 3D printers for students to see and interact with as they talked with them in person.

But during the pandemic, they’ve worked with CREATE to make videos describing who they are and what they do, and made themselves available virtually and via email for any students who have questions or want to connect through Zoom.

The two partners have co-owned Exceed Technologies Tupelo since January 2019. Dale concentrates on the sales side of the business, managing the sales team and working with customers to find solutions to their needs, while Bandre works on the technical side, fixing computers, removing viruses, etc.

Bandre’s advice to students is to find something they truly want to do. He believes job enjoyment supersedes hours and pay.

“It matters how much you enjoy doing it,” Bandre said. “Ken and I, we’ve both discussed it a million times – whether we’re getting paid a dollar or $1,000, we would do this regardless.”

Dale and Bandre said any students can pursue a career in IT because the field is so diverse. Those who want to work on networks and servers will need strong backgrounds in math, as it will help them understand subnets, default gateways and IP addresses.

But there’s another side of the business, one that requires only the will to work hard.

“High school students all the time come to us and pick up little jobs on the side like running cables,” Bandre said. “The next thing is, they’re learning how to put connectors on these cables and make cables.”

Exceed Technologies Tupelo regularly hosts interns at the high school, community college and university levels to gain the firsthand experience needed to land a full-time job in the IT field. A high school intern primarily works within the realm of infrastructure and basic PC repair, Ken Dale said.

He always asks the same question of interns who shadow the company’s technicians and engineers after their first day: “Did you learn anything today being in the real world?”

Dale said his students almost always give the same answer: That they learned more in that single day in the field than an entire semester inside the classroom.

“That is because there’s so many different facets and so many different environments we get into in a day’s time,” Dale said. “That tells those young adults that if this is something they want to do, they’re either going to love it on the first day or they’re going to be scratching their head thinking they need to try something else.”

For those high school students who do choose a career in IT, there are innumerable career options. Each day provides the opportunity to learn a new skill.

“The jobs are endless,” Bandre said. “So I think it’s a great field to get into because it’s very vast. You can go in many different directions.”

Dale said loves that his job gives him the opportunity to literally learns something new each day.

“You have to always train, there’s always certifications. Your education never stops,” Dale said. “In some cases, it accelerates once you get out of school because you have to learn specifics and get certified on specific technologies in order to be able to go into those fields, work on those products or configure that software.”

blake.alsup@journalinc.com

Twitter: @AlsupTheWriter

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