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CIOs become teachers, shape new IT talent

With enrollment in computer science programs down, CIOs must work with universities to make sure graduating students have the skills they need.

CIOs like to grouse about the paltry pickings of job candidates. But experts say instead of grumbling about it, CIOs should go back to school and help beef up the labor pool.

While CIOs like to complain about the quality of candidates they've been getting, they're not actually involved in shaping the candidates.
Samuel Bright
analystForrester Research Inc.
"While CIOs like to complain about the quality of candidates they've been getting, they're not actually involved in shaping the candidates," said Samuel Bright, an analyst at Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research Inc.

Enrollment in computer science programs is waning -- down as much as 70% in recent years, according to reports. At the same time, colleges and universities struggle to keep their curricula on par with changes in business.

"CIOs have expressed optimism about the future of the IT career, but they don't necessarily hire at the entry level," Bright said. "And those that do complain about the quality of the candidates they've been getting."

Bright said computer science programs often struggle to align with the needs of IT organizations because they focus too much on programming. They also teach students about tools that are obsolete by the time they graduate. Bright said schools need to teach students how to work with multi-platform environments. Often they don't teach key business skills that IT organizations are seeking, such as project management and negotiation.

In a research survey of 281 IT decision makers, Forrester found that most IT leaders do very little to reach out to local universities. Job fairs were the most common form of engagement between schools and IT organizations, with 57% of large IT organizations (500 or more IT employees) and 36% of small IT organizations participating. Job fairs are an effective recruiting tool, but if quality candidates aren't graduating from the programs, these fairs do CIOs little good.

The next most common type of engagement between schools and IT organizations was service on a university advisory board, with 28% of large companies and 19% of smaller companies participating. Lecturing in the classroom, sponsoring scholarships, serving on curriculum review committees and donations of technology were all relatively rare.

Real world experience

"One of the CIOs I spoke with actually comes into a local university to lecture," Bright said. "After he was done lecturing a professor said, 'We don't have to do two chapters because of what you just said about the challenges of service-oriented architecture. You covered what I would cover in two chapters with what you provided in real world examples.'

"The problem is that's the exception, not the rule, because CIOs are very pressed for time," Bright said.

But there are other direct reports who can engage schools and contribute to curricula and lecture, even if the CIO can't. CIOs can send employees to talk about IT and dispel the myth that graduates are stuck programming all their lives, for example. The solution is to utilize different players within an IT organization to really shape future IT talent.

Michael Carleton, CIO of the federal General Services Administration and a member of the Society for Information Management (SIM) board of directors, said he has reached out to local universities in the Washington, D.C., area.

"American University has a master's of business administration program with a couple of IT specialties," Carleton said. "They have a group they call the IT executive committee that advises them on curriculum and helps them find other ways to make the school attractive to midcareer professionals."

Carleton said he sits on that committee because he feels it's important that the federal government have access to a local high-quality workforce. He joined the committee by invitation. He said over the years he has been involved with American University, it has adjusted its curriculum to provide students with the types of skills CIOs are looking for, which he refers to as "consulting skills." He described this as being able to communicate what needs to be done to add value and enhance a business in a language that nontechnical people can understand.

Steve Pickett, CIO of Penske Corp. in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., and a past president of SIM, said he works with schools in the Detroit area to help produce high-quality graduates.

"In my opinion, it's so important because there are fewer and fewer students entering the field of IT," Pickett said. "Most CIOs are firm believers in the fact that employees not only need to have a technical background, but also a business background. SIM has been championing that cause around the country. Not just to teach business classes in technology programs, but to teach technology classes in business programs so that we can draw future IT professionals from both sides of the educational program."

Pickett said CIOs should reach out to local universities, beginning with the career resource office, and ask to be put in touch with the school's technology advisory council. He said he has never had trouble getting a university president to talk to him. And CIOs should try to get into the classrooms.

"Guest lecturing is a fun way to give back," Pickett said. "Standing in front of a bunch of students is a very difficult day. It challenges you intellectually. They ask questions you didn't expect."

Partnering with colleges

Dr. Robert L. Horton, coordinator of the Management Computer Systems (MCS) program at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, said he relies heavily on local CIOs to keep his program cutting-edge.

"We have a large number of partnership programs within the industry," Horton said. "This program was originally started with an industry advisory board, and it's continued to be very active ever since. Right now there is something like 40 individuals representing 25 companies serving on the board. Even more important than that, for the last seven years we've had a smaller group, the MCS Business Partnership Consortium. That's made up of seven companies. We meet with them once a month. We have a formal process with them for identifying technologies to bring into the program. Right now we're looking at Web-based technologies, Web services and open source technologies."

Horton said the participation of local CIOs has helped, but enrollment in his program is still low. This is a problem across the country, with reports of enrollment in computer science programs declining by 70% in recent years.

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"We were graduating 100 students a year, but now it's down to the high 40s, low 50s," Horton said. "So a lot of companies are concerned about where the next generation of IT professionals are going to come from."

Horton said his program has set up a program locally, known as iFair. He likened it to a trade show. Local companies go to high schools and show students the benefits of a career in IT, just to get them interested in studying it at college.

Horton said it isn't easy for CIOs and schools to work together, but it's worth the effort.

"I know that not everybody is successful with advisory boards," he said. "It's difficult to get people to come to meetings. You almost have to promise them a meal. I think there are a lot of industry people that think what academic people do is not terribly relevant and are afraid that academic people are not going to listen to them. We've had our arguments with the board, but you have to make sure you are at least listening to them and making some attempt at moving the curriculum in the direction they want it to go."

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Shamus McGillicuddy, News Writer

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