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7/14/2006
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In Depth: How Businesses Can Attract The Next-Generation Of IT Workers

Internships aren't enough. IT-dependent businesses need to take the talent pipeline as seriously as they do other critical industry risks.

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.'"

 
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That won't work. Fear--we think overreaction--about offshoring and competition with visa-carrying foreign tech workers has sunk into the minds of young Americans, making too many of them, and their parents, think twice about tech careers. Dropping enrollment in computer science and IT-related majors, combined with retiring baby boomers, fuels predictions of a tech talent shortage in the United States. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that by 2014, the IT industry will create close to 1 million new jobs and, with retirements, have more than 1.3 million job openings. IT jobs account for six of the 30 jobs that the bureau predicts will grow the fastest, with increases around 50% over a decade. Yet the number of computer science majors at Ph.D.-granting departments has fallen by half in the last five years--from 15,958 in 2000 to 7,952 in 2005, according to the Computing Research Association. While a drop-off would be expected after the boom, it hasn't stopped--enrollment in 2005 was lower than 2004.

Many doubt a shortage is looming--supply and demand do have a way of working themselves out over time. And it's not that there's nothing going on. Some companies are working with nearby universities--and even elementary and high schools--to tune coursework that nurtures the business-savvy techie and to market those programs in a way that entices business- and science-oriented students. The schools' challenge "is becoming our challenge," says Rich Miller, VP and CIO at Cerner, which makes software for the health care industry.

Some universities have students working in real-world, global teams to solve business problems using technology. Yet these tend to be singular efforts. The computer industry needs more unified action that gets beyond the self-interests of individual vendors--such as just getting more kids to use their software earlier. The Society for Information Management has made the tech talent pipeline one of its key missions, drawing on business IT pros to meet with high school and college students about their careers. In New York, major employers such as Citigroup, MetLife, and Progressive came together recently with a local university and IBM to address a looming skills shortage in mainframes.

More such collaborative, focused work is needed on the labor issue. When the number of H-1B visas letting foreign tech workers into the United States is at risk of being cut, the industry speaks with a united, unmistakable voice. And as the principle of "net neutrality" is being challenged by the big telecom carriers, how many Internet execs have trekked to Washington to lobby? The tech talent pipeline deserves at least as much passion and coordinated attention.

Talent Taken For Granted
During the dot-com boom, Missouri State University worked with about 50 employers that were recruiting students and offering internships to computer science majors, Hignite says. That's fallen by about half, and enrollment in computer science majors at Missouri State's business school has dropped precipitously, from 1,100 students several years ago to 200 today. The companies that recruit best get ahead of their staffing needs. "If you're going to need talent four or five years from now, you need to be at our campus now," Hignite says. Employers can work with schools providing internships, taking part in class projects, and providing input about what they consider important for the schools to teach.

SIM in particular has a couple of programs focused on the next-generation IT workforce that companies should check out. Over the last year, SIM chapters--whose members include IT leaders from local employers--have sponsored, along with Microsoft, seven events so far at U.S. colleges and universities, where college and high school students are invited to hear about IT careers and ask questions. (Snacks, soda, and a drawing for an Xbox 360 help draw them in.) The Seattle event attracted about 400 kids, and SIM Webcasts the presentations for students in areas without such a program.

Next on SIM's agenda are chapter events starting this fall aimed at high school and college advisers and perhaps parents. The program hasn't been launched, so there aren't many details. But the reason behind it is a fear that people with the influence to steer students' career interests think IT has lost its promise. "We want to ensure that these people have the ammunition they need to work with these kids in understanding the opportunities out there," says Jerry Luftman, an associate dean and professor at Stevens Institute of Technology and executive VP of academic affairs for SIM.

In New York, about a dozen employers joined Stevens Institute and IBM to plan ways to address the evaporating supply of mainframe skills as veterans of the mainframe era retire. Stevens is considering adding mainframe classes to its undergrad and graduate programs and taking classes to employer sites. "If you think it's difficult to motivate kids to go into PCs, imagine what it would take to tell them to go into mainframes," Luftman says. What's most promising about the effort is it shows employers working together to solve a long-term IT talent problem.

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