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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.
Robinette wants to do Web development or programming after she graduates. No one's ever tried talking her out of pursuing a tech career, and she's confident in her career path. But Robinette, who says she's always been strong in math and logic problems, got hooked on a tech career back in 10th grade, when she created a mock Web site as a school assignment.

Attention must turn to the high school level next.Edward Jones' success with its college internships got the company to create a similar program for high schoolers, an approach that's still rare. The pilot program will target several vocational high schools as well as a conventional high school. The aim is to "build relationships early and help direct their interest into computer science-related degrees," Ross says. The first internship will be for high school seniors, two days a week for seven hours a day, to expose them to database administration or programming. "We'll give them stuff they can do, low-hanging projects that help them learn platforms, content management on Internet pages, learn DBA reporting tools to pull data," he says. They'll be unpaid internships but could turn into paying jobs for the summer, he says.

SC Johnson, the No. 2 company on the InformationWeek 500 list of IT innovators in 2005, has nurtured some high school students into full-time employees under a similar program. Novell recently took on a high school senior as an IT intern for the first time--a Sterling Scholar, Utah's recognition for outstanding scholastic achievement. She did some Java programming and software testing and has since enrolled to study IT at Brigham Young University. Yet Novell's actions also show the limits of business involvement on the high school level. While the intern did well at Novell, the company isn't inclined to expand its internships with high school students. "There's still a whole lot of learning that needs to be done, life lessons and maturing," says Cheryl Williams, a business analyst at Novell who hires mostly college interns for Web services work.

SIM also takes a practical stance, aiming its programs at late high school and early college students. The companies involved mostly want to fill the immediate talent pipeline. "SIM, being a CIO organization, is targeting career-minded kids," says president Stephen Pickett, who's also CIO at Penske.

Catch Kids Early
That's where universities and business-education partnerships can step in. In June, Pace University hosted its first summer program for high school juniors, the Seidenberg Scholars Summer Computing Experience. From a pool of 130 applicants from 29 states, a committee chose 31 students (three who had perfect SAT scores of 1,600) who spent five days with all expenses except travel paid in Pace's dorms in New York, listening to guest speakers, including Verizon's Seidenberg, and participating in technology challenges, including four three-hour "design sprints." Those competitions included student teams using Lego robotic tools to build devices that monitor solar and wind energy. Throw in city tours and an off-Broadway show, followed by dinner in Chinatown, and Pace hopes many of the students will think tech's a decent gig--and Pace a good place to pursue it. "This is a step toward recruiting," Merritt says.

Kids aren't going to be an easy sell. Cisco for the past nine years has had its Cisco Networking Academy, focused on training high school and college (particularly community college) students on everything from basic IT to network certification. But enrollment has been dropping about 18% annually in recent years, says Gene Longo, senior manager, Cisco Networking Academy Program Field Operations, United States and Canada. The decline is starting to level off in the U.S. So in the last few years, Cisco has added a Promoting IT Careers initiative to the academy's coursework and skills approach. It includes activities like students job-shadowing Cisco employees in their area (on Groundhog Day).

Thomas Edison Vocational and Technical High School in Queens, N.Y., also uses real-life assignments so students can see real results from their networking skills, says John Rullan, who's a Cisco trainer throughout New York City and an instructor at Edison. The tech students work on upgrades for the school's computer labs and networks, and train teachers on programs like PowerPoint. Edison also has a chapter of the national nonprofit organization Mouse Squad, which provides technical support to schools through students. The 20 or so kids in the club also travel to other city schools to work on their computers, earning minimum wage. "I always stress hands-on experience," Rullan says. "You can learn something in a classroom but once you get a job doing it, it's not the same."

A few SIM chapters have tried tech programs aimed at younger kids. Most notably, the Memphis, Tenn., chapter tested a summer tech camp program last year for kids ages 12 to 15 at a city public library. The program's back this year, with campers spending each day for a week working on projects that IT people and library staff judge. This year, students will be able to take the work they do all week home on a memory stick so they can continue any projects they start. SIM and the library staff also hold monthly weekend sessions to which kids are encouraged to bring friends.

SIM Memphis chapter president John Oglesby says one of the lessons learned is to have role model-quality speakers, but have them bring along a plenty of BSOs--bright shiny objects. Whether it's a BlackBerry or a tablet PC, kids find the gear engaging, Oglesby says. Other SIM chapters have helped sponsor programs modeled after the Memphis summer program, Pickett says.

When faced with a megatrend like flagging interest in IT, it's easy to wonder if a program for a dozen kids matters. It's a start. Like SIM's effort to reach guidance counselors about the opportunities in IT. Or businesses working closely with nearby universities to shape the curriculum and attract interns. Businesses that depend on IT must start somewhere--stop lamenting the talent shortage and start doing their own small part.

"We've got to make sure everyone understands that this is important," Stevens Institute's Luftman says. "We need to spread the word."

Photo of children courtesy of Getty Images