Inside/Out: The IT Industry: Just an Image Problem?

"Only 3 percent of high school graduates who took the ACT assessment picked computer and information science as likely vocations," reports Robert Greene in an August 1998 Associated Press story. This fall, at the behest of technology companies, the U.S. Congress is considering lifting the limits on immigration of foreign IT workers -- limits which have already been met this year. Why are we so hard-put to produce homegrown labor to meet the demands for "professional specialty occupations" which the U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics says will be the fastest growing over the next decade?

"Students' current career aspirations seem to be somewhat out of sync with the jobs that will be available for many of them," Richard L. Ferguson, president of the American College Testing service says in the AP article. Even though more high school students are taking advanced math and science, the courses are not increasing interest in computer careers despite average starting salaries for 1998 computer science graduates of $41,561, a 12 percent increase over 1997.

It seems to me that what we have here is a failure to communicate effectively. Most of us within the industry understand the broad range of skills and great variety of occupations that comprise the IT environment. But if students see only a narrow segment, it will attract only a tiny portion of the total pool of available workers.

However, rather than correct the view, the IT industry is taking the expedient route of seeking immigrants to fill its openings. All the while there is every reason to suspect that many liberal arts college graduates, who could find rewarding careers in some aspect of IT, are selling shoes in the mall waiting for a better job that may never come their way. This is a disconnect between supply and demand that both colleges and industry need to solve now.

Computer-related jobs are found in most decent sized organizations; they are not restricted to IT industry companies. But the IT "professional" students see popularized in the press is a "geek" or "propeller head" who, while essential to the industry and worthy of recognition for his or her tremendous skill, represents only a small portion of the IT worker spectrum. If a student cannot identify with this role model, his or her inclination may be to reject the entire industry. As we know there is much more to it than that, and therefore we need to do a better job communicating what we are all about.

From a purely altruistic viewpoint, we owe it to American young people. And we also need to solve this problem for the long-term success of our industry lest the skills all move "offshore."

OK. What can individuals do? First, there is no magic bullet. Instead, the best way to "eat this elephant" is one bite at a time. Local, individual efforts will ultimately work best. Agreed that such efforts must be designed to serve your own company's long-term employment needs, nevertheless, they will also provide a better view of the whole IT landscape to students. Here are a few specific ideas you can try this fall.

  • Become involved in a program that brings students into contact with the real-world workplace. One way to do this is through the Explorer Program. This co-ed activity is organized by the Boy Scouts of America and helps companies establish an informal "club" through which inquiring high school students can explore the nature of your business to see if it offers careers that interest them.
  • Establish regular contact with your local educational institutions. Perhaps the teaching staff would benefit from knowing more about how your company uses computers and the skills you need in new computer hires. Maybe the students would like to learn about the kinds of jobs you offer and the pay. Something as simple as a plant tour for students and/or for educators and guidance people can close the communication gap that exists.
  • Use your own public relations efforts to highlight computer-related activities in your company and the people that run them, so students see different kinds of IT role models. This can be done through press releases, a speaker's kit employees can use at schools and elsewhere, a job fair in a high school or college, etc.

There are many other ways to communicate the rich variety and broad opportunity IT skills give to a job seeker. Surely more than 3 percent of high school graduates can qualify for jobs in our industry. It's time to become more image-conscious.

After 18 years in marketing and sales at IBM, Bob Diefenbacher founded Denbrook Systems Associates, an IT consulting firm based in Malvern, Pa.