High school students compete in a C3 competition at C Spire’s headquarters.
High school students compete in a C3 competition at C Spire’s headquarters.
C Spire held a day-long C3 program on Wednesday at the company’s Ridgeland headquarters that featured teams of up to four students each from 30 high schools from nine central Mississippi counties competing for scholarships and other tech-related prizes.  An April competition featured 13 teams from schools in Hinds, Madison and Rankin counties.

Students and an adviser from each school used critical thinking and problem solving skills to solve a fresh computer coding challenge during the day-long competition.  C Spire has assigned employees with IT backgrounds and experience to help each team.  Members of the top three teams will receive college scholarships.

Pepper, a four-foot tall humanoid robot from Softbank Robotics America with a tablet for a chest, also will be on hand interacting with students and other guests participating in the competition.  Tomorrow is National S.T.E.M. Day, which is set aside by the National Science Foundation and Code.org to emphasize science, technology, engineering and math education.

“Building on our highly successful inaugural event, we’re planning a fun, entertaining and educational day for all of the students who participate in the program,” said Carla Lewis, chief information officer for C Spire.  “Hopefully, we can inspire and encourage them to seriously consider IT and computer science as a career path.”

Lewis said the company-sponsored coding challenges and support for other public and private programs like the Base Camp Coding Academy are designed to help C Spire deliver on its promise to help create and retain a 21st century technology workforce in its region.

Workers with a background in computer science are in high demand and short supply in Mississippi.  Employers currently have over 1,200 unfilled job openings due to the serious shortage of trained, qualified IT workers, Lewis said.  The average salary for qualified IT workers is nearly $69,000 a year, almost double the statewide average.

Nationwide, new research estimates that there will be a shortage of over 1 million software developers in the U.S. by 2020.  “For all we know, the inventor of the next big thing or revolutionary app or software may be sitting in a Mississippi classroom waiting to be inspired and encouraged to become a leader in the digital economy,” Lewis said.

The C3 program can serve as an important first step to increase interest in computer science, according to Lewis.  In 2016, only 16 students in the state took the AP computer science exam and only three schools statewide offered the AP computer science course in 2015-16, according to Code.org, a computer science education advocacy group.

C3 is part of a broader C Spire Tech Movement initiative designed to leverage the company’s technology leadership and investments to help transform its service areas.  Other elements of the program include creation of a state-of-the-art digital customer care platform for customers and team members, massive deployment of broadband internet for homes and businesses and other leadership initiatives to drive innovation and development of a 21st century technology workforce.

“We live in a software-defined world where code and the internet directly impacts just about every aspect of our lives,” Lewis said.  “Computer science drives innovation and creates jobs throughout our economy, but we need to do more to encourage schools to offer courses and for young people to pursue IT and computer science as viable career choices.”