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Teens Skilled In Technology Will Shape IT's Future

Challenge is to give kids a positive image of employment options
Rob Capogna is quick to rattle off his areas of technical expertise. The 21-year-old IS major at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., is Microsoft-certified, Cisco-certified, and well-versed in networking, programming, and developing spreadsheets and databases.

But it's not a love of technology that's driving this college senior into an IT career. "I hate it. I hate all of it," Capogna says. So what motivates him to study business technology? "Because there's nothing else, and it makes money."

If Capogna is the future of the IT workforce, businesses may face some serious problems. Although his education and experience may make him a good candidate for a tech job, his views of what it means to have a career in IT seem to be years out of date. While there will be plenty of interesting tech jobs for the emerging workforce, an IT career is no longer the fast track to wealth and status that it was a few years ago.

"They're not going to be millionaires by the time they're 30 anymore," says Marc Bloom, director of business technology and information services at Cigna Corp. "Talented technicians who want to move up are going to have to have real-world skills and good business experience early in their career that will help them understand what makes their business tick."

Despite the added challenges and the reduced chances of getting rich quick, today's students--tomorrow's workforce--are still interested in careers in technology. And they have an edge over earlier generations of IT workers: They grew up with computers and the Internet as an integral part of their lives. As a result, they're not afraid of business technology and can easily imagine themselves working with computers as a career.

A recent poll of 1,000 teen-agers reveals that 9% expect to have a career in IT, according to a survey done by research firm RoperNOP Technology in conjunction with InformationWeek. That's a big jump from today's workforce, where only 2% of U.S. workers are employed in technology, according to the U.S. Labor Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics.

OS ExperienceAnd the next generation of IT workers is pretty easy to identify--they're the ones using technology now, according to the RoperNOP Technology's mKids survey. Teens who are considering future IT careers are averaging 13 hours a week on the Internet, compared with 7.5 hours per week for those who expect to use computers in their future jobs but not in an IT job, and fewer than six hours per week for teens who plan not to work with computers in their career. Future IT workers also have significantly more experience than their peers using a variety of computer and communications devices such as desktops or laptops, burning CDs or DVDs, writing software, and using various operating systems such as Linux, the Mac OS, and Windows.

It turns out that school homework is the main force driving teens to the Internet, followed by E-mail and communicating with friends. An overwhelming 94% of teens surveyed say technology has had a positive impact on their lives, while 90% say it has had a positive impact on the world.

The growing number of teens planning future IT careers still won't meet the needs of a business world that's increasingly technology driven and will have a growing shortage of tech talent in the coming years, employment experts say. More needs to be done to make the next-generation workforce truly useful to employers: Students need encouragement from schools and businesses to pursue a career in IT, and they need to understand that future success depends on understanding business as much as understanding technology, the experts say.

It's a challenge that has become more difficult now that a job in business technology isn't as cool and lucrative as it was a few years ago during the Internet boom. The dot-com collapse and subsequent layoffs of tens of thousands of technology workers has dramatically changed the job market, as Carlos Armando Garcia has discovered. The 22-year-old will graduate this spring with a degree in electrical engineering and computer science from MIT. He's had only five interviews and one job offer this year, while he was recruited by more than twice as many companies during his freshman year.

Still, Garcia feels lucky. He's got a job in the field he wanted--he'll be working for Merrill Lynch's information-management group, dealing with infrastructure and applications. "I want to do something related to finance because I'm interested in how you can apply technology to the financial world," he says. "If I spend at least two years there, I can get the feeling of what big companies need and how entrepreneurs can help them." Then he plans to get an MBA and one day own his own company.

Not all students are as fortunate, says Tom Cormen, associate professor of computer science and an undergraduate adviser at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. In the past, Cormen has encouraged graduates to enter the job market and gain experience rather than go straight to graduate school. Today, however, he says there are students from the class of 2001 who still haven't found jobs or have had to move away from an IT career path in order to earn a living. "Last year and this year, if a student is interested in a master's, I say go for it. There's now more of an advantage in doing that," says Cormen, who notes that he's beginning to see an improvement in the job market.

Computer Plans

The economic downturn is hurting the pool of future IT workers in other ways, experts say. Many businesses have cut back on recruiting, internships, work-study programs, and other career-development initiatives as budgets were slashed.

Until two years ago, Cigna worked closely with universities and students. That's still the best way to develop a better entry-level workforce, Bloom says. But Cigna has reduced its involvement in recent years--and not just for economic reasons. "The speed needed to get things done has gotten faster, so you don't have the luxury to bring people along that you used to," he says. "That's a shame, but it's the nature of business."

Cigna isn't alone. Many companies, increasingly focused on short-term returns, don't place developing a future labor pool as high on their list of priorities as they should, says John Ciacchella, VP at management consulting firm A.T. Kearney. And that could come back to haunt corporate America. "Businesses need to have a longer line of sight, because they need to take care of the pool that's going to feed their business," he says. They work together to "have technical standards and customer support standards, but would businesses get together to develop standards for maintaining and developing a qualified pool of workers? There's a void there."

That may be shortsighted, says Sharon Jordan-Evans, a workplace consultant, executive coach, and president of the Jordan Evans Group, a consulting firm that helps companies increase their organizational effectiveness. "All you have to do is look at the demographics and see that we'll have a labor shortage for the next ten years," she says. "The baby boomers didn't have enough kids."

Budgeting issues need to be put aside, Jordan-Evans says, and companies need to build better relationships with the next generation of IT workers. That can be done at a low cost through internships, hosting on-site events for math and computer-science classes, sending employees to career days, and most important, keeping a company's name in front of kids in their daily lives. Ads in teen magazines and on TV during prime kid-watching hours will work, and maintaining a Web site that appeals to young people is critical. "You can't have a slow or sleepy Web site if you want to attract people to IT," she says.

Companies such as Microsoft and Apple Computer keep their names in schools by providing free technology for classrooms. Others, including Intel, host science fairs to make sure they're contributing to the continuation of IT-minded high school students. While these types of programs help to build technology, that may not be sufficient. "It's not going to be enough just to be a good programmer. You have to be able to communicate well, present yourself well both in writing and verbally," Cigna's Bloom says.

Programming ExperienceTechnology skills by themselves aren't enough, A.T. Kearney's Ciacchella agrees. "There's a need for more business analysis and the bar keeps rising for tech workers," he says. "Where pure tech jobs are going, it's not about coding. It's about understanding a business problem and using the tools you have to solve it."

Some young technology workers have gotten the message. Adrian Gottshack graduated with a degree in biochemistry from Texas A&M in the 1990s and got technical experience working for PricewaterhouseCoopers consulting on SAP implementations and later at an Internet startup. But Gottshack has returned to MIT's Sloan Business School to make himself a more-attractive job candidate and to put himself on a career path to an executive position. "I have the Internet technology and development stuff, so I need to understand the fundamental things that really apply to business," he says.

While there are programs aimed at college students, a key challenge is to grab the interest of potential IT workers at a younger age, says Rebecca Guerra, VP of worldwide human resources at router maker Riverstone Networks and a member of J, a group of business, government, education, and community organizations that works to address community issues in Silicon Valley.

Of 2,500 Silicon Valley high school students, 66% get their career information from the mass media, as shown by a study released earlier this month by Joint Venture/Silicon Valley Network and A.T. Kearney. That's a bad thing, Guerra says, because the media tends to portray technology workers as nerds or in an unflattering manner. Says Guerra, "We have to hold these people up as real heroes who are creating incredible things for people."

-- With Tischelle George