Forum: Diversity, skills needed for workforce success

To thrive in today's workforce, IT professionals will need a mix of industry-specific skills and a multidisciplinary background as more programming and coding work is moved offshore.

That was the overriding message at a workforce forum coordinated by the Information Technology Association of America this month. The workshop included some large IT vendors and universities with technology programs.

One of the things Microsoft looks for in prospective employees are people "who can think about the silos in which they have been educated," said Marland Buckner, public policy manager at Microsoft. One clue that someone may have this ability is if he has an advanced degree in computer science as well as English, Buckner said.

"That is someone with skills sets significantly different than the traditional computer-science grad," he said.

At PeopleSoft, the company's 12,000-employee workforce has evolved to focus on industry-specific solutions that are also localized for international users, said Steve Eberly, a vice president in the company's public services solution consultants division. "The workforce has matured to the point where they have become specialist rather than generalist," he said. That means workers need to know how to add business value in certain areas in addition to having technical know-how.

The kind of work that is likely to be moved offshore is the actual "construction phase" of a project, where requirements can be spelled out in detail, said Eberly.

Among the kinds of IT workers that defense and government IT contractor Northrop Grumman Corp. needs are people who can handle high-end IT projects, such as enterprise and network architects, program managers and ERP specialists, said Marilyn Stewart, the company's senior director of federal enterprise solutions.

Because many of Northrop Grumman's workers require security clearances, moving work offshore isn't an option. The clearance requirement slows down hiring, which has prompted the company to emphasize retention programs.

Education programs are also broadening. Many universities and colleges offer IT programs that bring together a range of disciplines and technical skills to produce leaders who can align technology with business needs. Such programs are now trying to gain recognition under a formally accredited program; about 70 schools are involved in the effort.

Kurt Linberg, dean of Capella University's School of Technology in Minneapolis, said accreditation is necessary to ensure the quality of IT programs at the undergraduate level. "IT degree programs are popping up all over the country, and there is no ability to ensure quality," he said.

Accreditation is important to corporate hiring managers, who sometimes won't consider academic records unless they come from an accredited program, said Linberg.

But Trentwell White, corporate liaison at Chicago-based National-Louis University, said that while accreditation may resound with HR managers, an IT hiring manager will want to know about a job candidate's skills and expertise.

"So I'm not sure that accreditation -- which the education community keeps trying to build up because it brings them students -- is really the key," said White.

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