Why Young IT Pros Should Consider Higher Ed

In the battle for tech talent, small colleges and universities have a lot to offer Gen Xers and Millennials.

Keith Fowlkes, Vice President, Technology Business Category E&I Cooperative Services

May 22, 2013

5 Min Read

 8 MOOCs Transforming Education

8 MOOCs Transforming Education

8 MOOCs Transforming Education(click image for larger view and for slideshow)

While high unemployment continues nationwide, small colleges and universities face a chronic shortage of tech professionals. As if that challenge weren't daunting enough for CIOs like myself, now I'm told we must understand how the different generations think in order to better attract and retain them. Let me explain.

Recently, I heard a great talk about generational differences, adapted from the book Managing the Multi-Generational Workforce (DelCampo, Haggerty, Haney and Knippel, 2011). For the sake of this column, let's look at the two most recent generations in the IT job market -- Generation Xers and Millennials -- and connect some of their traits (as defined in the book) to higher education career opportunities.

Generation Xers (born between 1965 and 1980) are said to have a personal philosophy of working hard, saving money and having fun with their money. Among their core values: They tend to be independent, focused on learning, less formal than prior generations, enjoy the outdoors and seek a healthy work-life balance. They also tend to question authority, to give respect only when it's earned.

The Millennials (born between 1981 and 1994) are said to be self-confident, idealistic and also informal, as well as team- and community-oriented. They're multi-taskers and need to know why they're doing what they're doing. They also tend to have children later in life than previous generations, and they tend to focus on their friends as well as recreational activities (sometimes earlier in the workweek than they should).

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Research suggests that many Millennials have a serious need for supervision, either because they're young or, as some suggest, their educations preconditioned them not to think critically and abstractly. Be careful not to make sweeping generalizations on this point, however, as I've found this trait to be very true in some Millennials and very untrue in others.

What Do We Have To Offer?

So let's relate these generational philosophies and core values to the Gen X and Millennial tech professional's needs. These generations are noted to question authority and be fiercely independent. Two other traits are that they build "portable" and "parallel" careers, perhaps because they distrust traditional organizations.

In my experience, IT organizations in small colleges and universities focus more than most other IT orgs on efficiency, communications and personal relationships. Small colleges tend to employ tech pros who must be all things to all people, a major challenge but one of the reasons I've stayed in small college IT administration for 20-plus years. Wonderful variety is the spice of life, most of the time.

Small colleges and universities are wonderful places for families and friends. Generally speaking, work is self-paced, structured between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m., and flexible. There are definitely seasons when longer hours are necessary, but these are short-lived with few surprises.

It's not easy work -- myriad different obstacles get thrown at you from many different disciplines of study. However, at least with the institutions I've been a part of over the past 20-plus years, creativity and hard work are celebrated and the opportunities to develop the "general mind" are numerous.

Remember the trust issues that these generations trend toward? Colleges and universities must find new ways to build mutual trust with their tech pros (as they should for the entire campus community). Earn these generations' respect by showing them that their investment of time, energy and care mean something special to the community and society at large. This is exactly what happened with me in my early years.

The "General Mind"

So what is this "general mind" that I referred to earlier, and why is it important? To quote Thomas Jefferson: "To penetrate and dissipate these clouds of darkness, the general mind must be strengthened by education."

When I finished undergraduate school, I thought my education was complete. I had done my time in school and I was ready for the world. After my first year out, I started my career in higher education at a small college in Southern Indiana. There I found wonderful people who challenged me to learn more about life than computing. My friends on the staff and faculty invited me to attend lectures and speeches in many different fields, from economics to philosophy.

That environment awakened my general mind. With this engagement, I was inspired to go to graduate school (twice) and feed a broader life of the mind.

My family and I have had the opportunity to live a good life within three college communities filled with cultural events, community-service projects and students who became our family members over the years. I feel like we've invested our time and energy in making the world a better place.

Many of the traits of Gen Xers and Millennials are perfect fits for small college communities: team-oriented, family-oriented, independent and learning-focused. Tech pros interested in knowing the whys in life and not just the hows may need mentors, as I did, and they may want to explore their interests beyond technology in art, music, science or philosophy.

If small colleges and universities can communicate these attributes effectively to those two generations, I believe they could have their pick of the best and brightest tech pros.

Nearly 25 years after I started my career at that small college in Indiana, I recently decided to return to another small liberal arts college with the same love for students, love for campus community and passion for developing the general mind. My move wasn't for money or position. It was for peace of mind and a love for the learning environment that I left so many years ago.

If you're a young IT pro, I strongly recommend that you consider small colleges as a career option. If you're at one now, I challenge you to remind yourself what you have that your colleagues in the business world don't.

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About the Author(s)

Keith Fowlkes

Vice President, Technology Business Category E&I Cooperative Services

Keith is a veteran chief information officer serving as CIO for Saint Mary's College- Notre Dame, IN, University of Virginia-Wise and, most recently, Centre College. He is a co-founder and board member of the Higher Education Systems & Services Consortium (HESS) and has recently taken a new role as vice president of the technology contracts category for E&I Cooperative Services in Jericho, NY. Keith is also a frequent speaker and serves as a contributing writer on technology for EDUCAUSE, InformationWeek and the ACUTA Journal. He can be reached by email at [email protected] and more information on E&I Cooperative Services can be found at http://www.eandi.org/ online.

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