Crossing the Skills Gap

There's a big difference between what colleges teach and what IT employers need.

The newly minted college grad comes to your door with a four-year computer science degree and a résumé full of technical acronyms. He knows about simulation and modeling, parallel computation and Internet software development. He's very familiar with Web 2.0 applications and social networking technologies. He has even built a Web site to showcase his talents. Surely, he's every employer's dream entry-level IT staffer, right?

Not exactly, CIOs say. More often than not, there are significant gaps between what even the smartest and most tech-savvy graduates learned in school and what CIOs need from new members of their IT staffs.

What's more is that most companies have neither the time nor the money for on-the-job training. They'd prefer that universities incorporate more training for real-world IT roles into their curricula so that graduates are ready to start contributing their first day on the job.

"The problem is that universities don't train people to take jobs," says Michael Gabriel, CIO at Home Box Office in New York. "If they were better prepared to hit the ground running, they would be a more effective and lower-cost resource that could compete with offshore talent. They wouldn't hit potential constraints imposed by the time and effort required to get them to be productive."

Here's a rundown of some key gaps three CIOs from the insurance, financial services and entertainment industries see between what computer science graduates know and what they need to know to be truly productive and valuable to the business from Day One.

1. Inadequate Grip on Business Realities

Most of the college graduates that Cindy Warkentin talks to have what she considers "unrealistic expectations." "I had one young man tell me that unless I could offer him $75,000 or above, he's not interested. That's way above what's normal for a trainee," says the CIO at Maryland Automobile Insurance Fund in Annapolis.

Warkentin says recent grads also seem to think that they'll be able to approach work the same way they approached their studies when they were in school.

A full-time job "is a 9-to-5 commitment, and that really does seem to throw them a bit," she says. "They have a sense that they should be accorded opportunities at work to take long breaks, like the time in between classes."

As for IT skills, Warkentin gives university curricula high marks. "From a technical standpoint, the book learning and the experiences that technology students have is fairly sound. I don't see any huge gaps," she says. "But the university doesn't teach them what it's like to be in the workaday world."

This is exactly the kind of talk that gets Lew Temares of the University of Miami hopping mad.

"Yes, they're missing business experience, but they can't get that from a textbook," says Temares, who is CIO and dean emeritus of the university's school of engineering in Coral Gables, Fla. The best way students can get that experience is for companies to hire them as interns sometime after their sophomore year. But internship opportunities are down, Temares says. "The reason I hear is that companies don't have the people to train the interns. A lot of companies have cut summer internships, but it's a stupid place to cut. If you hire interns upfront, you get the best people in the long run," he says.

Temares says he hires many students to work at the university during their sophomore and junior years. When they graduate, he's willing to offer them full-time jobs, because he knows that they're well versed in his IT organization's technology and culture.

"If you don't take them when they're young and don't offer internships, you have no right to expect anything but book knowledge" when they show up on their first day of a job, he says.

To effectively bridge that skills gap, businesses and universities must form partnerships that bolster the currency of IT education and prepare IT graduates with the "right" business and technology skills, says Ravi Nath, an IT professor and director of the Creighton University College of Business. "Without such university-industry dialogue and partnerships, the disconnect between what industry wants and what graduates offer will remain."

Like Temares, Nath recommends that companies hire computer science students as interns.

"Clearly, no university can be expected to train graduates in every conceivable IT tool, programming language or technology platform," he says. "We have IT internship programs with several local firms where IT students work as interns for an extended period of time with the same business, beginning their junior year. This provides students with invaluable IT work experience, and upon graduation these students are ready to take on challenging IT positions."

Nath says these long-term internship opportunities are a win-win both for the employer and the student. Interns get IT work experience, and the businesses get an opportunity to assess the skills and dispositions of the interns as full-time employees.

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