IT jobs: Tapping teens to fill the gap

In an effort to help with a looming IT labor shortage, some local SIM chapters are drumming up interest among teens to consider careers in IT. The program includes a summer camp and a few bright, shiny objects.

John Oglesby has paid his IT civic dues and then some.

The director of IT strategy at ACH Food Cos. in Memphis, Tenn., Oglesby helped found the local Society for Information Management (SIM) chapter in the 1980s and rounded up an A-list advisory board to raise its profile in the city. The chapter has endowed college scholarships for promising IT students at the University of Memphis and LeMoyne-Owen College, a historically black institution started shortly after the Civil War. Faced with a shortage of qualified IT workers, Oglesby and his colleagues joined curriculum advisory boards at Memphis high schools and colleges. Five years ago, when the city decided to build a state-of-the-art local library, SIM executives were there to advise on the technology features. But the lack of IT talent nagged.

By college it is already a little late to drum up interest.
John Oglesby
director of IT strategyACH Food Cos.
"Two college students a year is great, but we kept looking for a way to improve IT education. By college it is already a little late to drum up interest," Oglesby said.

Time is of the essence in attracting students to IT. While IT professionals who have seen jobs move offshore dispute the claim, a dossier of statistics points to a looming labor shortage in IT.

Universities report that student enrollment in computer science majors is one third of what it was at the start of the decade. Bureau of Labor statistics show that the number of total incoming freshman planning to seek an IS or computer science degree is 1.1%, down from 3.7% in 2001.

The Chicago-based national headquarters of SIM was already working with Microsoft through its Future Potential in IT program to sell the field to college students, but it found many students had already decided on their major.

"While the program has been a great success, we have a much better opportunity if we can reach students at a younger age level," said Stephen Pickett, CIO at Bloomfield Hills, Mich.-based Penske Corp. and a past SIM president.

Enter Oglesby et al. in Memphis

The library officials who Oglesby and the SIM crew had advised on the new facility made a proposal. Why not sponsor a summer program for high school students? A large public high school was a just a few blocks away. Kids deluged the library after school to do homework and hobnob.

"We put together a program with SIM helping guide the curriculum, and the library doing all the heavy lifting," Oglesby said.

Tapping into the library's know-how about reaching kids, SIM announced a weeklong summer IT camp for kids ages 12 to 15. Students had to apply to get in. Another condition: on the Friday before camp, kids and their parents were required to attend an orientation program during which IT professionals laid out the curriculum and, oh by the way, proselytized on the opportunities in IT. Subtext: Lou Dobbs notwithstanding, all IT jobs are not going overseas.

The road to making high school kids IT-literate is strewn with minefields, even with a generation weaned on computers, said Brett Thompson, a teacher and technology integration specialist for the public schools in Naperville, Ill., an upscale suburb. Some 95% of students go on to a four-year university or college, Thompson said, and the average ACT score is 27. The district launched an IT curriculum and certification program nearly a decade ago, using the Cisco Academy training materials, only to find enrollments plummeting from 100 kids to eight kids just five years later. The bursting of the tech bubble was a factor, but more so was the training.

"We discovered that only 1% of the students enrolled in the program were actually passing the Cisco test. It wasn't the proper avenue for your average high school kid. We did them a disservice," said Thompson, who subsequently wrote a graduate thesis on the topic that ultimately persuaded other districts around the country to adopt a different curriculum.

Naperville uses training materials from The Computing Technology Industry Association Inc. (CompTIA), the nonprofit trade association and developer of certification exams for IT skills. Enrollment is up fivefold to about 50, just for the networking class. Certified students earn money maintaining and supporting school laptops, and find lucrative summer jobs, but the training is good prep for nontechies, too.

"My take is, even if the kids don't pursue an IT career, at least they are smarter consumers. Instead of taking their laptop to Best Buy, they can do some maintenance and upgrading on their own," Thompson said.

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The Memphis program drew kids from every demographic in the area, from wealthy suburbanites decked out with the latest technology toys to kids who didn't have a computer at home. The six-hour daily program was designed to the minute, starting with a short daily presentation from a SIM member and moving quickly to the "bright shiny object," or BSO, of the day -- a cool, up-to-the minute technological tool, such as podcasting, digital movie making and geographic information system mapping. The final project was a webcast for the library information center's "Teen Web Page."

"It is a wonderful opportunity for libraries and technology to come together, and to meet the needs of the teens," said Betty Anne Wilson, assistant director for library advancement at the Memphis Public Library. "It is a fabulous program they can enjoy and allows them to see libraries in a whole new arena."

Now entering its third year, Teen Tech Week in Memphis is serving as a model for a national rollout in cities where SIM members work. Not surprisingly, given the nature of computer scientists, the de novo Memphis program has been codified to the umpteenth degree, with a four-inch packet of materials including pointers and sample forms on everything from writing an effective press release (including gender-neutral guidelines) to interview tips. (Stay cool. When grilled on a topic you'd rather not address, say, "Good question, I'll get back to you later.")

Bright shiny objects, including BlackBerrys, will be used to reel kids in, said Pickett, who will help coordinate the national rollout.

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Linda Tucci, Senior News Writer

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