10 Jul While schools combat low tech enrollment, are businesses contributing to IT workforce woes?
Editor’s note: This is the third of a three-part series on information technology workforce development.
Milwaukee, Wis. – Will members of the so-called Xbox generation ever be as interested in helping companies create information technology as they are in consuming it?
Judging by the growing number of technology activities in Wisconsin’s K-12 public schools and institutions of higher learning, there may be more hope than many IT labor-starved employers think.
First, there is some catching up to do. The declining number of American kids enrolling in and graduating in the so-called STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) disciplines coincided with the dotcom bust of 2000-2001, but the enrollment numbers have yet to catch up with a growing number of jobs available in a technology sector that has made a solid comeback.
According to AeA’s 10th annual Cyberstates report, the nation’s high-tech industry added nearly 150,000 net jobs in 2006, bringing the total number of technology jobs to 5.8 million. That includes 79,800 high-tech jobs at 4,800 high-tech employers in Wisconsin, which ranks 21st among the nation’s “Cyberstates.”
While those statistics indicate a rebound in the tech sector, educators still are working to convince students and their skeptical parents that contrary to popular belief, the better IT jobs are not being shipped to India, China, and other developing countries.
Educators are trying to change minds with outreach. In conjunction with higher education partners like the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the state’s public schools are trying a number of programs and strategies to raise the interest of children. A good deal of the focus is getting more young women and minority students to pursue technology careers, especially because foreign students educated in the United States now have better prospects at home and are less likely to remain here.
The Wisconsin Girls Collaborative Project, funded by an 18-month grant from the National Science Foundation, is specifically designed to increase the number of females in STEM.
The collaborative, which has awarded $1,000 “mini-grants” to 21 STEM-focused projects, attracted more than 250 girls to its projects in 2006-07. Denise Roseland, a business and information technology consultant for the state Department of Public Instruction, said the collaborative seeks to provide girls with interactive STEM experiences.
The projects include Women Soar, which has established a relationship with the Experimental Aircraft Association’s annual AirVenture event in Oshkosh.
For 15-year-old Jess Weeden, who will be a sophomore this fall at Monroe High School, a mentoring experience with Women Soar has made all the difference in how she views the future.
Weeden, who will attend AirVenture later this month, has aspirations to be a flight surgeon, where she would operate on wounded soldiers in transport (though her father has encouraged her to become a pilot, just like him). Growing up, she was exposed to male-dominated fields like aviation, so imagine her surprise when she met Suzanne Darcy-Henneman, a pilot for Boeing and Laurie Benson, the CEO of Inacom Information Systems.
“It was a pretty big deal to see that a pilot of Boeing was a female, and the CEO of Inacom was a female,” she recalled. “I think that was kind of a shock.”
Roseland said the collaborative also attempts to provide public school teachers with the knowledge and skills they need to teach STEM subjects in an interesting way. It has created flexible teacher training programs and has enlisted university faculty to work collaboratively with K-12 teachers.
“Staying current with knowledge is one challenge, but engaging teachers in technology and science is another part of it,” Roseland said.
Aiming for the middle
State colleges have established a mix of pre-college technology academies (UW-Madison), girls’ technology camps (Madison Area Technical College), and various mentoring programs.
The UW-Madison Information Technology Academy, complete with mentor matching and short-term internships, is designed for students of color and economically disadvantaged students in Madison. The vast majority of graduates – 49 out of 51 – now are enrolled in postsecondary school, and additional private-sector funding will allow the ITA to expand enrollment.
Women in Mathematics and Computers, a University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point student organization, is comprised of tech-focused college women who serve as mentors for middle and high school girls.
In an attempt to teach biology in a more meaningful way, UW-Madison’s Center for Biology Education has partnered with the Madison Metropolitan School District to provide professional development to elementary, middle, and high school biology teachers.
It is the middle school years that one program views as critical in terms of steering young people in the technology direction. “I think really going after students at the middle school level is where we need to go,” said Lori Kelley, an information technology instructor at Madison Area Technical College who assists with the college’s summer Girls Technology Camp for middle schoolers. “By high school, it might be too late because they have formed ideas about their aptitudes and interests.”
Throughout the halls of academia, interactivity is viewed as the key to stimulating academic interest in technology careers.
Jake Vondra was part of an MATC student team that finished third in a national PC trouble-shooting competition hosted by the Association of Information Technology Professionals. The students, all members of the Madison Information Technology Association student club, were challenged to fix a PC that did not function properly due to 15 specific problems.
It gave Vondra and his teammates a chance to strut their stuff in hardware, software, and network maintenance, but perhaps more importantly, it was the kind of stimulating, interactive challenge that can attract young people to the technology fields.
Vondra, who is one semester away from graduation, has known since his junior year that he wanted to pursue a career in information technology, and the PC trouble-shooting experience only reinforced his interest. “What first sparked it for me was actively having a chance to put my hands on a piece of equipment and working with it,” he recalled, “instead of listening to a theory.”
Vondra said he is aware of the off shoring and outsourcing of IT jobs, particularly the call center variety, and he said a lot of his friends that considered a technology career were talked out of it due to parental concern over IT job losses.
In contrast, Vondra believes there will be an abundance of new technology jobs in the United States because some skills simply cannot be outsourced. “You can’t have a call center overseas that will be able to walk over to a server and fix it,” Vondra stated. “You still need people for [IT] development.”
He’s not alone in that view. According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, IT-related occupations are among the fastest-growing jobs in the country. It forecasts that computer-related professions will occupy three of the top 10 fastest-growing occupations between 2004 and 2014.
Super Geek or Super Star?
Kate Kaiser, associate professor of technology in the College of Business Administration at Marquette University, provided anecdotal evidence of the combination of low IT enrollment and high business demand in companies like Rockwell Automation, Northwestern Mutual Financial Network, and Accenture.
“We had a number of students in November  already getting job offers for May ,” she said. “Our summer interns – companies should be looking at them in November. They are starting to catch on that this is what they have got to do.”
This past year, Marquette students who enrolled in a course taught by Monica Adya, assistant professor of management, collaborated with students from the Management Development Institute in India. Teams from each institution, acting as a non-profit organization, were assigned to establish a literacy program, complete with a database that would be used to track donations.
Marquette students served as the project managers, and the Indian students were the database builders. The students communicated internationally through e-mails, some text messaging, and a Skype phone conversation.
Sasha McGinn, who is on course to graduate from Marquette in May of 2008, said the exercise sparked her interest in information technology management. When she enrolled at Marquette, she listed IT as a second major, and the overseas collaboration reinforced her interest in project management over code writing.
At the moment, her dream job would be chief technologist for a cruise line – a native of Alaska, she enjoyed an Alaskan cruise last summer – and she isn’t frightened off by economic trends like off shoring because “we still need to have IT skills” within the U.S.
“There is no way we could completely outsource,” she said. “We’ll need certain skill sets.”
McGinn, who acknowledged that IT majors haven’t exactly been among the “in-crowd” on college campuses, put a different spin on the derisive terms “geek” and “nerd,” which often are applied to computer science and technology students.
“We’re not just nerds, we’re super nerds,” she said in a bit of self-mocking hyperbole. “We’re not just people with thick glasses hacking away in a corner. That’s an idea that has to be revised.”
Professor Adya said the course was developed with workforce needs in mind, particularly in light of a growing private-sector preference for business-context education. “We spoke with a lot of local companies about this,” she said. “They prefer workers with project management skills and worker collaboration skills.”
Shooting themselves in the foot?
Those skill sets are needed, but the degree to which they are being sought overseas could be one reason why enrollment in the STEM disciplines has been in decline, according to James Carlini, president of the Chicago-based Carlini & Associates and an adjunct professor at Northwestern University.
By taking advantage of government programs like the H-1B visa program, where 65,000 visas annually are reserved for high-skilled foreign workers, Carlini believes American technology companies are contributing to the low STEM enrollments they profess to lament.
Carlini has written that there are plenty of American technology workers available, but employers are opting for lower-wage foreign talent that, given project delays associated with communication challenges, might not result in lower costs.
“Some young people choose other careers,” Carlini said, “and I think they are being influenced by what’s happening to adults in the workforce.”
• James Carlini: A disgusting video: U.S. companies sell out Americans
• Jump starting technology education
• Tom Still: Silver linings in the cloud: America’s dearth of STEM students
• James Carlini: H-1B jobs: Where is the shortage of skilled workers?
• IT workforce development: A little workforce planning goes a long way
• IT workforce development: Losing the numbers game
• Scott Converse, UW-Madison School of Business, on IT workforce development