by Margaret Locher

Ideas for Attracting Young People to IT Careers

May 07, 20078 mins
IT LeadershipMentoring

Five experts in IT education and training suggest ways to get more students into computer science and IT careers.

Low enrollments in computer science and engineering programs mean few students are choosing technology careers. Five experts in IT education and training suggest ways to reverse the trend.

Kate Kaiser

Associate Professor of Management, Marquette University College of Business Administration

When job openings were few between 2001 and 2004, students and their parents dismissed IT as a viable career. This low followed an inflated high when IT was tackling Y2K compliance, Web development and ERP projects. Both the high and low times were aberrations and unfortunately were back-to-back, exaggerating the misperceptions about IT careers.

Meanwhile, the media magnified the impact of offshore outsourcing, contributing to fears that the difficult IT employment situation would continue. There is growth for IT careers domestically and globally with end user companies and IT vendors. Research that I conducted with a team sponsored by the Society for Information Management (SIM) shows that nontechnology companies plan to increase their internal IT staff and supplement that staff with vendors. Companies using offshore sourcing are more likely do so by engaging a domestic sourcer with an offshore staff. And two new sources of jobs have emerged: Some global IT providers like Infosys Technologies and the Tata Group are hiring U.S. citizens. Meanwhile, there are new jobs within IT organizations due to the need to manage global teams—positions such as relationship managers.

Although the number of graduates in IT-related majors is increasing, the enrollment trend is not reversing quickly enough to meet the demand. We need to get the message to middle and high school students, parents and guidance counselors—in addition to college freshmen and sophomores—that if they want to enter these fields, they need basic analytical skills and an interest in science, technology, engineering and math. By middle school, students are often turned off from technical subjects and don’t have the basic skills they need to enter these fields.

CIOs can get involved with their school districts and spread the word that the market is excellent for technology graduates. Ask your staff to volunteer for career days at area schools, have them bring students in to shadow them or mirror the Future Potential in IT program (a program sponsored by SIM and Microsoft through which college freshman and sophomores learn from practitioners about real IT jobs) on a smaller scale.

Geoff Smith

President, LP Enterprises, and former Deputy CIO, Procter & Gamble

The first step to solving this problem is to acknowledge that it exists. Over the past few years, I have been asked to speak to hundreds of CIOs on developing the pipeline of future IT talent. I have been shocked and disappointed by the level of complacency of many of the very people who will bear the full brunt of this issue in the coming years.

They see the numbers, but they don’t pay attention because they’ve been able to hire people to meet their short-term needs. Those CIOs who do recognize the problem are either too busy (which is understandable) or don’t know how they can make a difference.

There are plenty of ways that IT organizations can have a positive impact. First, universities are hungry for insight and guidance about how their curricula should evolve and how to get graduates into the best possible jobs. CIOs can also help universities dispel the notion (that they get from the media) that all IT jobs are moving to India, by working with them to develop CRM and marketing programs for high school students, parents and guidance counselors.

For students already in college, providing summer internships or co-op positions is a low-cost way to support university programs and ensure a flow of high-quality, full-time hires into your organization. Having recent graduates who are excited about their new careers come back to speak to freshmen is one of the most valuable recruiting tools available to a university IS program.

But the best place to shape the long-term direction of the IT talent pool may be at the K-12 level. I have been involved with The InterAlliance, a collaborative effort of IT leaders, academia and high schools to encourage students to pursue IT-related careers. The initial pilot program put 40 10th-graders through two weeks of IT-career camps, where they heard from top IT and business leaders from major companies, took field trips to see exciting technology applications (such as robotic surgery), and got to bid on and deliver a website project for a real client.

Samuel Bright

Analyst, Forrester Research

One factor in lower IT career interest is the unfair perception of the IT career as confined to back-office programming and populated by geeks. Some students do not perceive IT as a socially conscious career choice that will enable them to contribute to the greater societal good.

So what can we do about it? Well, it’s not just up to Bill Gates to market the IT career. All players in the IT ecosystem (enterprise IT, service providers, academia and so on) are dependent on the continuing viability of the IT career and must therefore play a role. CIOs should take the lead by utilizing career fairs, college lectures, press interviews and community outreach to inform students about the benefits of working in IT and—for those hiring at the entry level—the benefits of working in their IT organizations.

Industry groups should launch a motivational speakers’ bureau for IT to drum up interest in the field. Speakers could go into high schools and provide guidance on the IT career and why it’s a worthwhile major, into corporations to explain the value of the career to people in non-IT business areas, and to conferences to generate publicity as spokespeople for IT.

Current students and young workers in IT should be encouraged to act as ambassadors by going into high school and middle school classrooms to dispel IT career myths by sharing their own experiences. Students need to hear firsthand testimonials of what the IT career is really like from young people who are happy with that choice. They need to know that they will not be hunched over a computer all day staring at lines of code.

Stephen Scarola

Network Administrator, Lakeland Bank, 2004 graduate of Seton Hall University

Computer technology has been an everyday part of life for young people. They may not find it to be an interesting career since they’ve been exposed to it for most of their lives. Students today are looking for careers that pay well and are exciting.

The recently fierce competition for jobs might also be responsible for the lack of interest. Students would rather go into a field where they will have a much easier time finding a first job.

I never got the impression that people thought computer science majors were nerdy or uncool. If anything, we attained a little bit of respect because the curriculum was so difficult. If people shy away from the major, I would say it’s because they are unwilling to put in the time that goes with it. It is an immense amount of work not nly to finish the major but also to stay in touch with an ever-changing field.

It boils down to how much work you really want to do in college to turn IT into a career. I saw a lot of people start out doing computer science because they wanted to make money when they got out, but when it came time to pull all-nighters and actually learn how to do everything that was expected of us, many of them didn’t want to do the work.

Chris Stephenson

Chris Stephenson, Executive Director, Computer Science Teachers Association

Student interest in technology careers is lagging in part because of the lack of time within the high school schedule for them to study computer science.

The problem with the K-12 curriculum is that there is no consistency in how technology and computer science subjects are taught. One thing our research shows is that having a national curriculum for computer science in place not only improves consistency but goes a long way toward ensuring that courses are rigorous and teachers are properly prepared to teach the material.

The Computer Science Teachers Association (CSTA) is working on solutions to these problems. First, states could be encouraged to adopt curriculum standards or guidelines such as the Association for Computing Machinery’s Model Curriculum for K-12 Computer Science. It sets out rigorous learning outcomes for a comprehensive set of courses. CSTA is working on providing additional implementation documents for each of the courses in the curriculum to help teachers implement it successfully.

In addition, state departments of education and institutions that train teachers need to make sure that teaching programs adequately prepare teachers. For example, the Georgia Institute of Technology just redid its computer science curriculum and is now trying to work out a model for teacher certification in the subject. CSTA has just finished a survey to determine the current computer science teaching certification requirements for each state, and we are looking into a project that examines all of the issues relating to teacher certification so we can provide a model that all states can adopt.

Margaret Locher is a freelance writer based in the Boston area.