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UNCC eyeing next generation of tech-savvy business leaders

When insurance giant MetLife announced earlier this year that it was moving some 2,600 jobs to North Carolina, company leaders split the difference between Charlotte and Cary.

They sent more than 1,300 positions in sales, marketing and other sectors to Charlotte. Cary got about 1,300 to staff a global technology and operations hub.

But on closer inspection, the split wasn’t as even as it seemed.

The average salary for the Charlotte jobs: $58,000.

Average pay for the programming jobs headed to Cary: $112,000.

Those two numbers stuck with me long after the cheering died down over the admittedly good news of solid middle-class jobs coming to Charlotte’s Ballantyne Corporate Park.

The salary differential offered yet another reminder that the big data revolution is upon us. If we aren’t ready to compete, we may well see more of these high-paying jobs bypass Charlotte.

With seemingly every business and social transaction handled online these days, the amount of data produced is exploding, and demand is soaring for programmers and analysts who know how to study it.

Experts predict nearly 2 million big data jobs will be created in the U.S. by 2015, but only a third will be filled because businesses won’t be able to find enough skilled workers.

And if MetLife is any indication, corporations considering relocating big data jobs can be highly selective about where they’ll put them.

“Business investment goes where talent is,” said Yi Deng, dean of UNC Charlotte’s College of Computing and Informatics. “Whoever has the talent will attract business.”

Charlotte hasn’t traditionally been known as a technology magnet, but Deng and Steven Ott, dean of UNCC’s Belk College of Business, are hoping to help change that. Their colleges have joined forces behind an aggressive campaign to create new degree and training programs aimed squarely at the big data needs of local corporations.

Belk Inc., which has been expanding its e-commerce effort, gave the campaign a big boost by donating $5 million over five years.

UNCC plans new graduate degrees and certificate programs in data science, business analytics and health informatics, as well as classes for undergraduates and training for corporate executives.

The goal is to train graduates who not only can build databases and write code but also have the business savvy and leadership skills to weave that knowledge into broader corporate policy and decision-making.

“The demand for these types of employees is so high that we could use 10 of these programs across the state and still not be able to saturate the need,” Ott told me. “When we mention these sorts of programs (to corporate leaders), their eyes often light up.”

Leading the way on big data

The two deans said a growing number of colleges are studying big data programs, but UNCC sees a chance to lead the way.

“In two, three years’ time, lots of universities will have it,” Deng said.

The local business community senses the need. Family Dollar and Lowe’s are interested, the deans said. The Charlotte Chamber put supporting the UNCC effort on its 2013-14 legislative lobbying agenda and is planning a first-ever technology summit this fall.

MetLife’s decision to send its data jobs to Cary suggests it’s time for action.

To be sure, we do have some strengths when it comes to meeting the demands of the big data era. Our big banks have sophisticated data operations, giving the region a pool of tech-savvy workers other companies might consider when thinking about the region.

When China-based IT consulting giant Pactera announced in April that it would form its U.S. headquarters in Charlotte, it expressed confidence that it could find talent to fill the 200 jobs it expects to add locally in the next three years.

Still, that’s not the same thing as meeting the workforce needs of an Apple or Google or Microsoft. The giants of the digital age have all built their empires from home bases on the West Coast.

They don’t mind sending their data centers to North Carolina, in exchange for lucrative incentive deals. But none seem inclined to throw in their corporate headquarters and the thousands of high-paying jobs attached to them.

Their taxes might be higher out West. But so, apparently, are their chances of finding the talent they need. At least for now.