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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.

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 Internships
Nothing 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.

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