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6 key skills new IT grads are lacking

New tech graduates are smart, their IT managers say, but they still need coaching in these key areas.

February 13, 2012 06:00 AM ET

Computerworld - Greg Taffet is scouting for talent.

The CIO of U.S. Gas & Electric in North Miami Beach recently hired four new staffers and was looking to add 11 more people to his team of 20. His list of open positions included an EDI programmer, a risk management programmer, a CRM programmer, a business analyst and an assistant IT manager.

Taffet says he doubts any new college grad could easily fill any of those roles. Undergraduate and graduate schools aren't able to keep up with the needs of enterprise IT shops, he says.

"It's a horrible thing to say, but there's just not enough time [in college to learn] all the skills that people need to be successful. We are expecting more and more, and universities are supplying more, but we're asking for still more," he says.

What "more" do Taffet and other IT leaders want? They continue to value the "soft skills" -- particularly communication skills, customer service skills and an understanding of how to behave professionally -- that have topped their lists for years. But now they're also looking for specific business and technical skills that recent grads seem to be lacking. Computerworld talked with IT managers and found that there are six key skills they wish their newest hires had picked up in college.

Take notes -- there might be a pop quiz after.

1. Knowledge of Business Basics

Sure, new computer science grads can program, but do they understand accounts receivables, logistics and operations, or marketing plans?

Probably not, says Todd Thibodeaux, president and CEO of the Computing Technology Industry Association (CompTIA), headquartered in Downers Grove, Ill.

That's because most students in computer science undergraduate programs still do the majority of their coursework within that field -- even though many end up in corporate IT positions where they're expected to develop applications to facilitate the work done by other departments. And while graduate-level IT programs do a better job of offering business-related courses, there can still be a knowledge gap.

Colleges are starting to address the problem, says Brian Janz, an MIS professor at the University of Memphis's Fogelman College of Business and Economics and associate director of the university's FedEx Center for Supply Chain Management.

The university is in its second year of following the IS 2010 model curriculum designed by the Association for Information Systems and the Association for Computing Machinery. That plan calls for teaching tech students both IT skills and professional skills such as communication and leadership.

The switch has brought more business studies into the MIS coursework, Janz says. "There are always going to be gaps that are going to be very specific to the hiring organization, but we can make sure the foundation is there," he says. "If we can give them the sound foundation, [businesses] can give them the stuff specific to their organization."

Traits IT managers love

While it's true that IT managers are dismayed that new tech grads lack certain skills, overall they agree that this new generation is tech-savvy, hard-working and willing to learn.

Todd Thibodeaux, president and CEO of CompTIA, says he hears from colleagues that the latest graduates are energetic, creative and eager to contribute.

"I'm not sure that was always the case," he says. "Twenty years ago, there was more of a command-and-control environment. People didn't volunteer themselves or jump into projects as much. The kids today like variety, and they have the energy, creativity and good nature that comes along with that."

IT executives also say their latest college hires have an intuitive sense of technology -- in particular, an understanding of social networking and ideas on how to apply it to enhance business performance.

"Often they have great insights as to what ought to be tried or to what might work," says John N. Oglesby, an IT executive in Tennessee and a founding member of the Memphis chapter of the Society for Information Management. "They bring a completely new outside perspective, and that's typically where innovation comes from."

— Mary K. Pratt

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