IBM, South Carolina work to boost enrollment in IT classes

BCBS of South Carolina spearheads effort as it looks to fill many open IT posts

BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina has 2,200 IT employees and plenty of open positions. Despite the flagging economy, officials at the Columbia-based insurer are working on new ways to overcome the difficulty of finding people with the right skills to fill those jobs.

In this economy, any worry about filling an IT position may prompt a head-scratching moment, even with the U.S. IT workforce growing this year by just over 2% through November. BCBS officials note that enrollment in computer science programs is down in the U.S., and many people in such programs aren't learning the IT skills now needed in many corporate data centers.

"There has just been a growing chasm between what the computer science programs produce and what we as businesses, the business of IT, really need," said Lonnie Emard, director of staff resource management at BCBS of South Carolina.

About 18 months ago, BCBS of South Carolina joined with IBM and the University of South Carolina to address what some see as a disconnect between job functions and academic programs, as well as to find ways to boost enrollment in university technology programs. Those efforts led to this month's unveiling of the Consortium for Enterprise Systems Management, which is charged with increasing the "pipeline" of students graduating with the right IT skills to fill available jobs. Emard noted that many companies still need to fill a significant number of jobs requiring IBM mainframe skills. He said that his firm processes 800 million claims each year on mainframe systems.

The consortium, which is looking to add new business and academic members, plans an extensive outreach effort, including the use of social networking sites such as Facebook, to let university students know of specific skills sought by corporate IT operations.

Emard said college graduates looking to work in IT need expertise in three broad areas to meet the requirements of businesses today: analytical skills, an understanding of basic businesses decision-making processes, and varied technology skills. Those skills should include expertise in software, IT infrastructures, high-volume data management and databases.

Emard said his firm's IT operation has 60 to 90 job openings at any given time for all levels of experience. He noted that to fill those slots, BCBS competes with other companies for a limited pool of graduates. Therefore, it must conduct constant national searches and offer training programs.

Computer science programs typically blame everything from the dot-com bust to offshore outsourcing for the decline in enrollment, which hit a new low in 2007. Some academics also point to the growing appeal of some other disciplines, such as finance, for the decline in computer science majors.

"There are [IT] jobs, they are high-paying jobs, [and] they are always going to be here," Emard said. "The fact is, we know young people have lost interest, and we think the reasons [cited by experts] are fallacy."

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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