From the Classroom to the Real World

SAN MATEO (03/27/2000) - When John Hancock Financial Services in Boston needed additional IT staff to handle software configuration management, Muriel Castronova didn't place a recruitment advertisement in The Boston Globe or reassign current IT personnel. Instead, she found a college student.

At John Hancock Financial Services, Northeastern University undergraduate students in the Cooperative Education program perform data modeling, support application software, administer the company's computerized tracking system, and handle software configuration management.

"[The co-op program] helps free up our key people," says Castronova, senior systems manager at John Hancock Financial. "It enables us to get more work out the door. It takes some extra work off our plates."

It's a win-win situation for companies and students alike. Companies tap into a pool of fresh talent. As for the students, school-to-work opportunities such as Northeastern's Cooperative Education program prepare students for IT careers, providing them with practical work experience and a better understanding of the business world.

"It also provides the advantage of soft skills, such as dealing with business partners and dealing with two to three managers in a matrix organization," Castronova says. "It rounds out their skills and provides a practical application for what they learn in school and more."

While Northeastern's program has been around for decades, school-to-work programs are gaining in popularity as a way to address the worldwide shortage of skilled IT workers. Businesses, high schools, and universities throughout the United State are partnering with IT associations to change the image of IT education, recognizing the importance of starting at an early age. Although these partnerships between independent organizations and businesses help solve the staffing shortage, such efforts are just a start down a path that calls for more concerted outreach efforts.

University and high school partnerships

As part of the struggle to promote IT skills early on and increase training availability while in school, high schools and universities are teaming up with local businesses.

At the Southern Methodist University (SMU) School of Engineering, students and staff members in the Advanced Computer Education Center are working with high school students and teachers in both Dallas and Houston. The goals are to introduce high school students to the IT profession, encourage them to study computer science in college, and familiarize teachers with opportunities and technologies so that they teach more computer courses.

In Dallas, SMU is partnering with local TV station WFAA to target northern Texas high schools by offering scholarships for continued technical education.

Students will take summer classes at SMU, leading to A++ hardware industry certification for preparation as computer technicians after graduation.

Teachers will also be trained in the future.

David VonZurmuehlen, director of marketing at SMU's Dallas campus explains, "We work very closely with the companies to truly understand their needs with regard to the technical people they need to hire over the next six to 12 months. If a company says 'We have e-commerce initiatives and need networking skills,' we seek out vendors who can provide this type of curriculum, and we teach it in our classrooms."

In Houston, high school students and teachers from Houston Independent School District (HISD) have access to courseware, instructors, and PCs. Teachers also receive training four days per week.

Classes cover A++ certification, Microsoft networking essentials, and the Microsoft operating system. Some students who have completed the program have obtained A++ and Microsoft certifications, or work in the PC support departments of computer stores. Others work at SMU and at HISD, setting up PCs, troubleshooting, and performing networking functions.

Associations and businesses team up

Meanwhile, independent associations and businesses are looking for ways to enlarge and enrich the available pool of IT talent to help them fill the steadily growing list of open positions in the industry.

The Applied Information Management (AIM) Institute in Omaha, Neb., is a nonprofit consortium of business, education, and government, which works with area businesses and educational institutions to define job skill requirements for the technology workforce, design curriculum, and develop work experiences.

AIM has developed internships with companies such as US West and Union Pacific.

Keith Bigsby is an educator on loan to the AIM Institute from the Omaha public schools system. His job is to build a pipeline into post-secondary institutions and develop relationships that address the needs and challenges of both organizations.

"It's most important for businesses to understand that given the proper input and the correct guidance, K-12 can deliver what they are looking for," Bigsby says. "It will take the support of every IT manager and company to make this happen."

Bigsby is particularly proud of the Wings-21 (Workforce Initiative for the Next Generation of Students for the 21st Century) program. Beginning in the ninth grade, students learn about IT careers and the necessary skill sets. All ninth grade students are required to take the "Pathway-21" course as an introduction to IT and six career pathways: programming, multimedia, systems integration, business marketing applications, electronic print publishing, CAD, and drafting.

At the high school level, 14 Nebraska high schools are teaching Cisco technology. Additional IT school-to-work initiatives include mentoring, job shadowing, job tours, electronic career exploration, Internet job services, and internships.

First National Bank of Omaha is one business that employs high school interns for IT work. "AIM has been a real good resource in bringing consensus across community and has helped us leverage resources across Nebraska," says Jim Schmidt, senior vice president at First National. "[AIM] took the lead in identifying a pipeline program."

A workforce initiative grant from the Nebraska Excellence in Education Council to Omaha Central High and the AIM Institute provides a curriculum to help students acquire industry-certified, marketable technology skills.

An outgrowth of this grant is Widening Our World (WOW), an umbrella program of the US West Foundation, which provides technology training for teachers, seed money for classrooms, technology initiatives, and a mobile, interactive technology van. WOW began two summers ago, with high school students and teachers working approximately 20 hours per week on US West projects as tape operators, application programmers, and database developers. They also converted documents for the company's intranets: modifying and updating 800 US West forms for employee intranet access, and converting 87,000 pages of product information to facilitate computer access by US West customer contact employees.

"The value of an internship to the student is the opportunity to work in a business environment, learn about the company's culture, and gain experience working in an IT job," says Delana Rauterkus, IT director of application operations at US West Information Technologies, in Omaha. "The value of an internship to the company is the opportunity to work with the student and evaluate their potential before making a commitment."

The future of IT education

Partnerships enable businesses, schools ,and associations to define the direction of IT education, while enhancing its image. Such initiatives also provide immediate access to needed technical talent and let companies showcase their facilities to students as places of future employment.

But the image of IT education still has a long way to go. Rachel Cheeseman, Executive Director at the Information and Technology Training Association (ITTA), says, "Often IT training departments are perceived as a cost center rather than as providing value to the corporation. [Instead], tie IT training with the business strategy and e-commerce solution." This technique, she says, will help better demonstrate the value of IT education.

The earlier IT education starts, say experts and educators, the better. It means creating career awareness, exploration, and career preparation opportunities. It should also involve job shadowing in middle school, work-based training in high school, and improved teacher training. Most important, it requires true commitment and partnerships with businesses, trade associations, and high schools as well as universities.

John Donaldson, Senior Program Manager at Workforce Development, ITAA, NAB, and EDC, says, "There need to be champions at each level, mentors on the front line to place a high value on partnering with schools and having interns in the workplace."

Paula Jacobs is a frequent contributor to InfoWorld's Careers & Management section and director at a Massachusetts-based business communications company.

She can be reached at pjacobs@world.std.com.

Youth entrepreneurs step forward

Youth Technology Entrepreneurs (YTE) is a leadership program for high school students in nine Massachusetts school districts. This program provides leadership skills, using technology as a means to an end.

Participants apply when they are high school freshmen and must commit for three years. Selection is based on a highly competitive application and interview process, which does not consider grades or computer skills. Approximately 48 percent of the participants are women and 60 percent are students of color.

YTE participants learn hard-core business skills such as Linux and Windows 2000, but they also learn customer service, problem-solving, communication, and teaching skills.

"We believe it is not enough to teach technology," says Michael Goldstein, executive director at YTE. "The only way you can learn it is by doing."

YTE students obtain respect and recognition for their skills, which contributes to the program's success. For example, they design Web pages, networks, school computer labs, and teach computer skills to other students and teachers.

They must commit to working one Saturday per month and performing 50 hours of community service per year. Every student who passes receives a paid summer internship with a Massachusetts firm, with YTE guaranteeing the quality of the student's work performance.

"We are no longer looking at businesses as charity," Goldstein says. "We are looking at them as equal partners. We have a commodity that you need -- high quality, computer skills."

Businesses that hire YTE students pay a finder's fee. "We train the students to be so useful to businesses that businesses pay a premium to know that they are going to get a guaranteed skilled worker," Goldstein says.

This program benefits students, schools, and businesses. YTE students build and practice skills required in the workplace. Schools obtain more resources to follow through on their technology agenda. Businesses are able to hire students with real-life, on-the-job work experience that includes interfacing with clients.

"We believe that our model can work with any student anywhere," says Goldstein, who hopes to expand the program to 50 different Massachusetts districts. "We are changing the face of the IT industry. ... We want to be able to prove that our model works in all types of communities."

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