The World Economic Forum ranks the US fifth worldwide in information communications technology in its 2010-2011 Global Information Technology Report. The country falls behind Sweden (1), Singapore (2), Finland (3), and Switzerland (4), with Taiwan/China (6), Denmark (7), Canada (8), Norway (9), and Korea (10) rounding out the top ten.
This ranking is in stark contrast to the customary technology leadership the US possessed in the mid-twentieth century, which culminated with the moon landing.
There are many factors that contribute to loss of technology leadership, but the effective education of young people who can deliver immediate value in technology job markets is certainly one of them. The inability of our educational system to deliver on-the-mark education that matches up with what companies need from new IT talent has multiple contributors, including:
- Parents. Many parents of college students discourage their offspring from pursuing IT careers because the parents, perhaps having experienced job displacement due to outsourcing in their own careers, no longer consider IT a viable, long-term career.
- Young people. With standards of education eroding, many US college students wonder if they have the math and science skills needed for technology careers. “Each semester, I look around the class to see how many foreign students are in there,” admitted one junior at a Big Ten university. “The more foreign students that I see, the harder I know it will be for me to compete.”
- Professors. It might be human nature to stick with the familiar, but college and university professors tend to define IT curriculum around what they already know. In IT, this means lots of classes on Unix, Windows, and Linux platforms, with an emphasis on computer science over business computing. The value of the Internet is understood by everyone, but the technical work of tying Internet resources into enterprise computing is not always taught.
- Recruiters. Companies looking for IT talent usually send out HR people as campus recruiters. When university and college professors and department heads ask recruiters for specific details on the types of technical skills that the companies need from graduates, the answer is usually IT soft skills, such as excellent written and verbal communications and the ability to work well in a team environment.
Company recruiters, often without IT backgrounds, rarely say to college students that their companies need technical skills in SQL server programming and object-oriented programming and Internet SOA deployment, or the ability to automate server and storage workflows, develop or manage databases like Oracle, and write reports against these databases.
Yet these are precisely the areas where corporate IT needs young talent. Banks, insurance companies, healthcare organizations, and others want people with skills in corporate IT infrastructure architecture and knowledge of transaction processors, security and networks, and databases. They also want skills in Java, Web-facing and Web back-end processes, service oriented architecture (SOA), and applications development for mobile applications.
The position of network systems and data communications analyst is the second fastest-growing position in the US, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. “If you have the degree, you can work at Sloan-Kettering, the FBI, PNC Bank, or the New York City Ballet,” said Jonathan Hill, assistant dean of Pace University’s Seidenberg School of Computer Science. “If you are good, you will be employed.”
Meanwhile, some schools are working to better prepare students. “We’re working closer with businesses enterprises in internship and placement programs for our IT students and we continue to evolve our curriculum so that the skills we teach match what corporate IT is looking for,” said Professor Cameron Seay of North Carolina A&T State University. “Part of this program includes ongoing education for our IT instructors so they can teach the skills that are required, instead of the knowledge that they initially bring to the university.”
Will approaches like this immediately solve the US technical skills crisis and improve the nation’s overall technology performance? Probably not, because much work remains to be done, and change will initially be incremental and evolutionary. The good news is that those within our institutions of higher learning are beginning to get the message about technology “relevance.”
— Mary E. Shacklett, President, Transworld Data