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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.

Tech Vendors' Next Step
Tech 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 Change
Universities 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.

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