Industry turns to Newport News program to build data science workforce

Mike Melo, CEO of ITA International and a 1979 graduate of Virginia Tech, saw opportunity when he heard about an Outreach and International Affairs program in India to train data scientists.

Melo’s government contracting company wanted to boost its data analytics services. But finding the right workforce in Newport News, Virginia, to fill those roles can be challenging. During a chance encounter at a College of Natural Resources and Environment banquet, Melo and Guru Ghosh, vice president for Outreach and International Affairs, spoke about the effort in India. Melo immediately knew that Virginia Tech’s integrated approach was just what his company needed.

“The demand for trained workers is more than the supply right now. We, as a company, decided we’re going to go out and build our own data scientists,” Melo said. ITA made a $240,000 investment for scholarships to veterans and transitioning service members.

“As the Arab saying goes, ‘Sometimes a chance meeting is worth more than a thousand appointments,’” Ghosh said.

The professional certificate program’s first cohort of 12 participants – a mix of ITA employees, veterans, and service members soon leaving the military – will graduate on June 22 in Newport News. In addition to training current employees, ITA plans to recruit new employees from the graduates.

Using a mix of weekly online and monthly classroom sessions, participants employed analytical models to make sense of the tremendous amount of technologically generated data. By harnessing the power of hidden information, data may then be used in new ways, such as an app that predicts crashes or a program that forecasts stock prices based on social media activity.

The 10-month program, spearheaded by Outreach and International Affairs, recruited faculty from around Virginia Tech while also drawing on the expertise from industry, including Halliburton and Boeing.

“What differentiates this program is that it gets people who are actually doing data science work from industry and people who are doing research in academia together to work in a collaborative manner,” said Tarun Sen, managing director of the program and professor emeritus of accounting and information systems. “It gives it the right kind of flavor that’s needed for a truly integrated program.”

Virginia Tech faculty included in the mix are:

Instructors from industry included Satyam Priyadarshy, chief data scientist for Halliburton, and Dewey Houck, retired chief data analytics officer for Boeing Defense, Space, and Security.

Lucien Meteumba was serving as a transportation specialist in the Army when he started the program. He said it has already changed how he sees the world.

“Sometimes data can give us a lot of information that we don’t know. By analyzing the data, we can find some meaningful information to help develop our company, develop our nation, and develop the world,” Meteumba said.

He now works for ITA.

The Newport News program is only the beginning. Sen said the program may be expanded throughout the commonwealth, including in Richmond and Roanoke. The program is also underway in India, where 13 participants are expected to graduate by the end of July, and new partnerships are being sought across the globe.

Meanwhile, Melo said, ITA plans to continue to offer scholarships to veterans who want to participate in the program in the fall and is working with Virginia Tech to offer two courses to ITA’s government clients. “It’s a win-win for everybody.”



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