How to Close the Technology Skills Gap

In the final installment of CIO.com's three-part look at the technology skills gap in America, Gary Beach offers 12 examples how companies are bridging the gap with innovative programs. He also offers suggestions for what you can do to build the next generation of IT pros.

The first two articles in this series on the technology skills gap focused on numbers. Lots of numbers. Numbers of Americans unemployed and underemployed. Numbers of open jobs that firms cannot fill because they claim applicants do not have the needed skills. And the shocking numbers earned by American students in international assessment examinations that rank them 32nd in the world in mathematics and 22nd in science. Not a beneficial return on investment for another stunning number: the $600 billion American taxpayers spend annually on public education in the United States.

In Part 3 of our series discussing the technology skills gap, Gary Beach chats about what companies can do to bridge the gap between employees and the necessary skills needed to compete.

But this final segment of the series will shove aside numbers to focus on "people." People who have crafted innovative public/private partnerships that are demonstratively closing the science and math skills gap in America.

I write about these human efforts in my book, "Let's Build Some Arks." The title was borrowed from a story I read about Louis V. Gerstner,Jr., the former chairman and CEO of IBM. When Gerstner joined the company from RJR/Nabisco in 1993, IBM was in a state of disarray.

Wall Street analysts pleaded with Gerstner to split up the company. But the new CEO ignored those calls and instead met with thousands of IBM employees asking for their advice on how to keep the company whole with these words: "no points for predicting rain, points only earned for building arks." Gerstner wanted solutions and he got them as he revitalized an American business icon.

What follows are 12 examples of "arks." That is, extraordinary public/private partnerships aimed at helping the United States bridge the skills gap our nation faces.

1. AT&T Aspire Foundation

Randall Stephenson became CEO of AT&T in June 2007. One of his first mandates was to add 5,000 U-Verse installers. (U-Verse is AT&T's cable/Internet/phone offering). There was only one problem. He couldn't find enough skilled workers to do the job and that frustration led Stephenson to start the AT&T Aspire Foundation that provides education grants to high school seniors and challenges AT&T employees to "be remarkable, be memorable&.be a mentor." The AT&T Aspire Mentoring Academy has a goal of donating 1 million employee mentoring hours by 2016.

2. Broadcom MASTERS Program

The Broadcom MASTERS program (MASTERS stands for Math, Applied Science, Technology and Engineering for Rising Stars), launched in 2010, is an innovative initiative with one goal: to inspire thousands of middle school students each year to consider future careers in science, technology, engineering and math.

The MASTERS program is a yearlong competition, in partnership with the Society for Science and the Public, among students across the nation. I had the opportunity to speak with several students who competed in the Broadcom MASTERS program. I wanted to get from them how the program changed their perspective on science and math.

One student summed up the value of the program well with these words, "my ideas about going into a scientific field of work were cemented. My MASTERS experience sealed the deal for me."

Another reason I like the MASTERS initiative is because it does such a good job at emphasizing the importance of other skills - like collaboration, communication and creativity - in the education process.

3. Cisco Networking Academy

Back in 1997 federal money was pouring into our nation's K-12 schools all earmarked for connecting the schools to the "information superhighway," a term used to describe the Internet two decades ago. There was, however, one problem. Though the schools needed routers, the key product Cisco made in 1997, most American schools did not have the technical staffs to install or maintain this new equipment.

That's when an enterprising tech employee at Cisco came up with a simply brilliant idea: the creation of an after-school training program where students would learn to become the school's tech support staff. It was a perfect win-win situation. And 16 years later the Cisco Networking Academy program has trained 4,000,000 students in 165 countries around the world.

4. CA Technologies Tech Girls Rock

One of the most significant issues in science and math education in America is gender bias. There is this prevailing notion, unfounded by research, that girls are less suited for science, technology, engineering and math than boys.

Bridging the Education Gap

George Fischer, executive vice president of worldwide sales for CA Technologies decided to do something about it. He personally reached out to the Boys and Girls Clubs of America and led the development of a national program of one-day workshops where female tech workers from CA Technologies share, with middle school and high school girls, their experiences and how they chose a career in technology.

5. Cognizant 'Making the Future'

Cognizant is a global provider of IT, business process and consulting services located in Teaneck, New Jersey. One issue I addressed often in the book is the importance of experiential based learning as it pertains to math and science. Cognizant's "Making the Future," a national road show, focuses squarely on experiential based learning by challenging young Americans to "explore, invent and experience the joy of learning." Cognizant is also a major sponsor of the Maker Media, whose corporate mission is to "create more opportunities for young people to make, and, by making, build confidence, foster creativity and spark interest in science and math."

6. IBM PTECH High School

Here's an interesting fact. According to March 2013 data from the U.S.Bureau of Labor Statistics, 30 pecent or Americans are "college educated." That figure is an all-time high for the United States, but it still means 70 percent of Americans are not college educated.

The more you study the issue of a "skills gap," the more you come to appreciate a new placeholder in the U.S. education landscape: the career technical education (CTE) degree. The most prominent example of a CTE program is one called "PTECH," which stands for "Pathways in Technology Early College High School."

PTECH, a joint partnership among IBM, the City College of New York and the New York City Department of Education, starts in ninth grade and continues to 14th grade! At graduation students will receive their high school diploma and an associates degree in applied science. This IBM supported program is cracking the code on new learning models in the United States.

7. Junior FIRST Lego League

Many tech executives have heard of FIRST, which stands for "For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology." This nonprofit is best-known for sponsorship of global robotics competitions. Most have not heard of "Junior FIRST Lego League," a joint partnership program between FIRST and Legos that challenges young students in grades K-3 to design and build a motorized machine with Lego blocks. I had believed the middle school years are the most important years in framing a young person's career inklings in science, technology, engineering and math. This FIRST/Lego partnership convinced me we need to start much earlier.

8. Microsoft TEALS

Kevin Wang is one innovative person. A graduate of the University of California, Berkeley with a degree in electrical engineering, Wang, a former teacher in the Oakland public schools system, has a passion for computer science. But in 2009, just as he joined Microsoft, Wang was concerned about the abysmal number of American high school students opting to take the computer science AP course in high school.

When Wang joined Microsoft he noticed several things. First, he was impressed with the incredible numbers of colleagues who had a STEM degree like he did. Second, he noted the unusual work hours for STEM employees at Microsoft where many would work the 10 a.m.- 10 .m. shift. And that's when Kevin Wang got his idea for TEALs (Technology Education and Literacy in Schools).

Wang signed up colleagues to join him in TEALs and then approached local high schools in the Seattle area offering early morning AP computer science courses taught by Microsoft employees before they headed to Redmond for work. The program has become a huge national success.

9. Raytheon MathMovesU

Launched in 2005, the Raytheon Corporation's "MathMovesU" program aims to build greater awareness of and appreciation for mathematics among America's middle school aged children. MathMovesU is a multifaceted program with a website that acts as a central repository.

The U.S Technology Skills Gap

The company has also invested in compelling social media sites on Facebook and Twitter and has formed unique public/private partnerships promoting the exciting world of mathematics with the Smithsonian Institute and the Walt Disney "Imagineering" exhibit at the EPCOT center at the Walt Disney World Resort in Florida.

One of the other reasons why I am so impressed with the Raytheon program is that is has direct, vocal support from William Swanson, the CEO of Raytheon. The six years of research that went into writing my book convinced me beyond a shadow of a doubt that to succeed over the long term, any program must have the unconditional support of the CEO. Without it, programs, often very good ones, wither and die on the philanthropic vine.

10. SAS Curriculum Pathways

The SAS Curriculum Pathways program, founded in 1996, makes it one of the early leaders in public education matters in the United States. It also has an incredibly committed CEO, Jim Goodnight, leading the company's education effort. Goodnight, in addition to launching the SAS Curriculum Pathways program, also funded and launched a private middle school/high school in Cary, North Carolina called "The Cary Academy."

What makes the SAS Curriculum Pathways program so innovative? With all the talk about massive, open, online courses in the headlines today, Jim Goodnight's Curriculum Pathways program, which according to my research, is America's first corporate supported online learning initiative. Curriculum Pathways also impressed me because it was among the first programs in the United States that realized technology can be a significant tool to help teach cognitive, collaborative and critical-thinking skills - particularly as curriculum in our nation's classrooms continues its dramatic shift from print to digital format.

11. Technology Goddesses

Cora Carmody is the CIO for Jacobs Engineering, a tech firm located in Pasadena, Calif. In 2002 Carmody was getting increasingly concerned about the dropping numbers of college women who were signing on for majors in STEM. Realizing that the seeds of that discontent were formed in middle school, Carmody partnered with the Southern California Chapter of The Girl Scouts and founded "Technology Goddesses," a two-week summer camp filled with activities for young women to inspire them to pursue careers in technology. How successful is "Technology Goddesses"? Jacobs Engineering just hired a young woman who attended the first Technology Goddesses camp back in 2002.

12. Xerox Science Consultant Program

The Xerox Corporation deserves special recognition. Its Science Consultant program, launched in 1968 and still going strong, was the first example of a public/private science and math initiative in the United States. Moreover, it is a program that can be replicated by any company that employs scientists and engineers.

The Xerox Science Consultant program focuses on grades 3 to 6. Here's how it works: The Xerox Corporation generously donates materials for science kits and encourages the company's STEM employees to volunteer time to work with the students to prepare and conduct scientific experiments at the school. Since its inception, the men and women of Xerox have successfully conducted more than 700,000 experiments in our nation's third to sixth grade classrooms. Many have launched thousands of young Americans on STEM careers.

Become an IT Ambassador

One of the chapters in the book, "Too Hard To Follow," focuses on the perception among young Americans that math and science are "hard" subjects to learn, these subjects are irrelevant to their lives (though they of course appreciate the tech skills of engineers who built their smartphones) and why pursue careers in STEM because all the future jobs in those fields will be outsourced to Asia. (insert drawing here)

The Stevens Institute of Technology, located in Hoboken, N.J. attacked those perceptions head-on with this idea: Let's survey middle school and high school guidance counselors across the state to determine how knowledgeable they are about careers in STEM. Not surprisingly, the guidance counselors, busy with lots of other issues at the school, were totally clueless when it came to careers in IT.

And that's where you can come in. Become an "IT Ambassador" (a term coined by DIGITS, a Massachusetts STEM nonprofit) by reaching out to the guidance counselor at your local middle school, or high school, and offer to come into the school to share with interested students just what it takes to succeed in IT!

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