Contrary to nasty rumors, the IT profession isn't dead in the United States. Far from it. What could kill it, though, is if bright young minds steer clear of the profession. It's time for business and technology leadership to treat this as a serious, long-term problem and work with employers, educators, and policy-makers to encourage young people to step up. Hiring a few college interns isn't enough. The industry needs a collective effort to get more people into the pipeline. "Many companies look at talent like it's raw material," says Michael Hignite, MBA director and professor at Missouri State University's College of Business Administration. "'I'll buy it when I need it.'"
Tech Vendors' Next StepTech vendors are among the most active companies working with colleges and universities and even primary and secondary schools, but there's more they could do.
Under the 3-year-old IBM Academic Initiative, the company is providing lesson material, free software, training, and other support to help teachers and professors instruct students in skills that are in demand, including those related to open standards and open source (and, yes, IBM technologies). IBM also has an alliance with the Computer Science Teachers Association to provide high school teachers with curriculum material and tools--including gamelike lesson plans--aimed at taking the boredom out of learning object-oriented programming and other tech skills. Hewlett-Packard, Intel, Cisco, Microsoft, SAP, and others also have been hitting the schools with programs to arouse tech interest and equip students with skills they expect will be needed in years to come. HP says it has donated $36 million in grants during the past two years through its Technology for Teachers programs, much of it for math, science, and engineering for K-12 schools serving low-income students.
Intel's efforts include sponsorship of the International Science and Engineering Fair, where close to 1,500 high school science students competed this year for $4 million worth of scholarships. It's a more than 50-year-old contest that Intel has sponsored since 1997. Microsoft, in addition to working with SIM on its outreach program, offers more than $500,000 in general scholarships and for minority, women, and disabled students. Chairman Bill Gates visited a number of top computer science programs last year trying to pump up interest in the field.
SAP's educational alliance program, begun in the mid-1980s in Germany, has grown to 700 colleges and universities in 30 countries, including 140 U.S. schools. Now the program focuses on teaching computer science and business students how to automate business processes, the sweet spot for SAP. "Kids need to understand what technology does," reasons Amelia Maurizio, the software maker's director of educational alliances.
While tech vendors are doing great work with schools, it's generally independent of other tech vendors--and often with a clear self-interest. The next frontier is for more collaborative outreach carrying a single message about the strong future of the IT profession. It's not something that comes naturally to companies otherwise locked in competition.
There's also the issue of charitable giving. Given the incredible wealth the IT industry has generated, perhaps we'll begin to see more gifts as potentially influential as that of Ivan Seidenberg, Verizon's CEO and chairman, who in 2005 donated $15 million to his alma mater, Pace University, for student scholarships and faculty enhancement programs at what's now the Ivan G. Seidenberg School of Computer Science and Information Systems.
Beginning in 2007, the program will award $23,000 in scholarships and free laptop computers to students who excel in IT studies. Today, most scholarships and grants for computer-related studies are government-sponsored, from the National Science Foundation, says Susan Merritt, dean at Pace's Seidenberg School.
Work For ChangeUniversities aren't standing still, even if many IT pros lament the speed at which schools react to new technologies and business technology needs. The most innovative universities are working with businesses to make courses more practical and relevant. "IT will be a job much different than we think of it today," says Mark Hanny, VP of IBM Academic Initiative. "IT jobs will be more like business professionals."
The University of Indiana has been working with SAP for about 10 years, helping to provide a range of ERP classes. "Ten years ago, if you could spell SAP, you were hot," says Ashok Soni, chair and professor of the operations and decision technology at Indiana University's Kelley School of Business. "Then IT went down the tubes in 2001, 2002, 2003." Since then, the business school's IT program has been reorganized around optimizing business processes. The school's even finding ways to inject real-world business surprises--like having students adapt to a global merger and work with students in other countries--into the coursework (see story, Next-Gen IT Workforce: University Readies Students For Global Workplace).
Daniel Conway, an Indiana University professor who taught a business processes management workflow class in the United States with a German professor at the University of Brandenburg, says professors need to interact with business technology executives. "In academia, we live in a sheltered world," he says. In this class, executives judged how well students dealt with business process change while working in cross-country teams. Next, the university wants to work with a school in China.
At Marquette University, professors in departments that teach IT courses--including the business school, computer science, computer engineering, and engineering management--have been exploring how education needs to change in response to a global workforce, funded in part by a grant from the 3M Foundation. As part of it, a professor taught a project management course in the business school in partnership with an Indian university, and another taught a computer science course on component architecture by helping develop components for existing applications for a local software company.
Businesses are often frustrated with the pace of change at schools, which must balance the need to build a technical and business foundation for students with the push to teach the hottest technology. Stanford and MIT don't aspire to be the vocational tech programs for their nearby employers.
Financial services firm Edward Jones works with Missouri State, among five other schools, to let educators know which skills it needs the most, including networking topology, voice over IP, security, and content management design. "We give input--'This is what we need'--and ask, 'What do we need to do to partner with you?'" says Kirk Ross, Edward Jones' team leader of university recruiting. Edward Jones provides the school with one of its own staff members as a speaker or adjunct professor when needed.
It's sometimes a struggle to get schools to include the skills Edward Jones is after in their curricula because a handful of other nearby employers, including Caterpillar and Sprint, also are pushing their top priorities for what technology and skills to add, Ross says. Working with academia can take a measure of patience.
At Pace University, enrollment in graduate and specialty tech programs is increasing thanks to programs such as an online course sponsored by telecom companies and unions for local telecom workers. Pace also runs a program at the Bank of New York for IT pros to learn computer security and software design and development, a certificate program that can be applied to a master's degree. Yet while working adults see increasing value in investing in their IT skills, that's less true of younger people: Pace has seen undergrad enrollment in computer science and information systems decline over the last few years.
DON'T Back Off InternshipsNothing can cement an IT career choice quite like a good internship. There isn't a lot of solid data on tech intern employment, but one survey last summer struck a worrisome note. While a healthy 70% of the 379 managers responsible for IT hiring or internship programs said their departments had summer internships, only 43% planned to fill those spots this summer, the survey by the Computing Technology Industry Association found. Without internships, ambitious college--and even high school--students will look elsewhere. Internships also can be key to getting the kind of business and industry understanding that business IT leaders say entry-level people often lack.
For Edward Jones, recruiting doesn't mean going after traditional computer science majors, but instead students in MIS and other systems-related majors, with a strong balance of business and technology classwork. But it's not looking for a bunch of tech-aware business majors either; it expects hands-on tech skills, including programming in Cobol, possibly Visual Basic and C, plus networking protocols, security, and Web development. Edward Jones insists on the complete package. "If you're a whiz-bang security person without business perspective, we'll stay away," recruiter Ross says. "We look for strong business acumen with solid technology skills."
One way for companies to ensure that interns do valuable work and get good experience is to have internal groups compete for their services, as Edward Jones does. Ross gets 20 to 30 requests a year from IT managers who want the help, and usually only 10 to 15 interns are chosen. Those managers who underutilize their interns "won't get any more interns," Ross says. "I don't want these interns to be bored. We want them to want to come back" as full-time employees after graduation.
Over the past six years, Edward Jones has hired 60 to 70 students it recruited from colleges as interns. The programs include a three-month summer stint and a seven-month co-op in which students take a semester off from regular classes to get deeper experience.
Work experience has hooked Andrea Robinette, a 21-year-old computer information systems major at Missouri State who will start her senior year this fall. She's had three summer IT internships, including the one she's doing now in the office of Missouri's state secretary, which involves work on Flash development and a Web site for kids. "I get to see how the world works and what my development skills accomplish," she says.
Robinette wants to do Web development or programming after she graduates. No one's ever tried talking her out of pursuing a tech career, and she's confident in her career path. But Robinette, who says she's always been strong in math and logic problems, got hooked on a tech career back in 10th grade, when she created a mock Web site as a school assignment.
Attention must turn to the high school level next.Edward Jones' success with its college internships got the company to create a similar program for high schoolers, an approach that's still rare. The pilot program will target several vocational high schools as well as a conventional high school. The aim is to "build relationships early and help direct their interest into computer science-related degrees," Ross says. The first internship will be for high school seniors, two days a week for seven hours a day, to expose them to database administration or programming. "We'll give them stuff they can do, low-hanging projects that help them learn platforms, content management on Internet pages, learn DBA reporting tools to pull data," he says. They'll be unpaid internships but could turn into paying jobs for the summer, he says.
SC Johnson, the No. 2 company on the InformationWeek 500 list of IT innovators in 2005, has nurtured some high school students into full-time employees under a similar program. Novell recently took on a high school senior as an IT intern for the first time--a Sterling Scholar, Utah's recognition for outstanding scholastic achievement. She did some Java programming and software testing and has since enrolled to study IT at Brigham Young University. Yet Novell's actions also show the limits of business involvement on the high school level. While the intern did well at Novell, the company isn't inclined to expand its internships with high school students. "There's still a whole lot of learning that needs to be done, life lessons and maturing," says Cheryl Williams, a business analyst at Novell who hires mostly college interns for Web services work.
SIM also takes a practical stance, aiming its programs at late high school and early college students. The companies involved mostly want to fill the immediate talent pipeline. "SIM, being a CIO organization, is targeting career-minded kids," says president Stephen Pickett, who's also CIO at Penske.
Catch Kids EarlyThat's where universities and business-education partnerships can step in. In June, Pace University hosted its first summer program for high school juniors, the Seidenberg Scholars Summer Computing Experience. From a pool of 130 applicants from 29 states, a committee chose 31 students (three who had perfect SAT scores of 1,600) who spent five days with all expenses except travel paid in Pace's dorms in New York, listening to guest speakers, including Verizon's Seidenberg, and participating in technology challenges, including four three-hour "design sprints." Those competitions included student teams using Lego robotic tools to build devices that monitor solar and wind energy. Throw in city tours and an off-Broadway show, followed by dinner in Chinatown, and Pace hopes many of the students will think tech's a decent gig--and Pace a good place to pursue it. "This is a step toward recruiting," Merritt says.
Kids aren't going to be an easy sell. Cisco for the past nine years has had its Cisco Networking Academy, focused on training high school and college (particularly community college) students on everything from basic IT to network certification. But enrollment has been dropping about 18% annually in recent years, says Gene Longo, senior manager, Cisco Networking Academy Program Field Operations, United States and Canada. The decline is starting to level off in the U.S. So in the last few years, Cisco has added a Promoting IT Careers initiative to the academy's coursework and skills approach. It includes activities like students job-shadowing Cisco employees in their area (on Groundhog Day).
Thomas Edison Vocational and Technical High School in Queens, N.Y., also uses real-life assignments so students can see real results from their networking skills, says John Rullan, who's a Cisco trainer throughout New York City and an instructor at Edison. The tech students work on upgrades for the school's computer labs and networks, and train teachers on programs like PowerPoint. Edison also has a chapter of the national nonprofit organization Mouse Squad, which provides technical support to schools through students. The 20 or so kids in the club also travel to other city schools to work on their computers, earning minimum wage. "I always stress hands-on experience," Rullan says. "You can learn something in a classroom but once you get a job doing it, it's not the same."
A few SIM chapters have tried tech programs aimed at younger kids. Most notably, the Memphis, Tenn., chapter tested a summer tech camp program last year for kids ages 12 to 15 at a city public library. The program's back this year, with campers spending each day for a week working on projects that IT people and library staff judge. This year, students will be able to take the work they do all week home on a memory stick so they can continue any projects they start. SIM and the library staff also hold monthly weekend sessions to which kids are encouraged to bring friends.
SIM Memphis chapter president John Oglesby says one of the lessons learned is to have role model-quality speakers, but have them bring along a plenty of BSOs--bright shiny objects. Whether it's a BlackBerry or a tablet PC, kids find the gear engaging, Oglesby says. Other SIM chapters have helped sponsor programs modeled after the Memphis summer program, Pickett says.
When faced with a megatrend like flagging interest in IT, it's easy to wonder if a program for a dozen kids matters. It's a start. Like SIM's effort to reach guidance counselors about the opportunities in IT. Or businesses working closely with nearby universities to shape the curriculum and attract interns. Businesses that depend on IT must start somewhere--stop lamenting the talent shortage and start doing their own small part.
"We've got to make sure everyone understands that this is important," Stevens Institute's Luftman says. "We need to spread the word."
Photo of children courtesy of Getty Images