Crossing the Skills Gap

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

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2. A Narrow Worldview

As a global real-estate brokerage and consulting firm, Cushman & Wakefield Inc. does business around the world. CIO Craig Cuyar needs and expects IT professionals to be aware of and knowledgeable about cultural differences.

That doesn't necessarily mean that staffers must have experience living or working in a foreign country, he says. "Not everyone can travel, but since we live and work in a global economy, we should expect undergraduate programs to prepare students with a fundamental understanding of the cultural differences, historical perspectives and common business practices employed by all the major countries within it."

Ideally, Cuyar says, "there should be a course in global business practices and cultures. At the very least, there should be a few classes taught on this subject."

Cuyar says he has seen a seemingly small thing like time zone differences throw off new employees. "People need to really understand there's a 12-hour time difference between Hong Kong and the U.S. That's a conference call at 9:30 p.m. versus 9:30 a.m. You can't schedule everything on U.S. time."

Cuyar says that to help new recruits get acquainted with various cultural norms and what it's like to work on multicultural teams, his strategy is to assign new hires to participate on committees that will enable them to develop those skills.

3. Social Networking Skills but Wobbly Relational Skills

Rare is the new college hire who lacks skills involving Facebook, texting or any other form of electronic communication. But face to face, many of these same people have difficulty reading interpersonal signals and communicating, especially in the increasingly multigenerational workplace, says Warkentin. "Most of the gaps I see are on the social, soft skills side," she says.

"The older generation tends to be more structured. They tend to have the expectation that anyone coming into the company will have the exact same experience that they did when they started their career," she says. "They expect a great respect for authority and a willingness to do as they're told." In contrast, "young people expect to receive respect for bringing new ideas."

New ideas are not at all a bad thing, the CIOs agree. Rather, what's needed, they say, is a better understanding of, and respect for, the various sets of values so that new employees are better at working on multigenerational teams.

"What I've seen is that people coming in don't have the necessary skills or understand the fundamentals required to build relationships with senior people," adds Cuyar. "A newly minted college grad is not going to be able to forge relationships with senior people via Facebook or LinkedIn."

4. Lack of Career Focus

To CIOs, it seems as though college grads don't get any advice about how to match their talents and interests with specific IT jobs.

"From what I've seen, universities basically take more of a shotgun approach. They teach [computer science students] a little about a lot of things, but not enough to be effective in a corporate environment," says HBO's Gabriel.

For example, he would like to see colleges help students determine what their strengths are and then match those strengths and ongoing education to specific career roles within IT. "The idea is to build upon people's strengths," he says. "If someone is strong at math and they're analytical, there is a career in IT that leverages that, in business intelligence or data analytics."

Gabriel suggests that university should teach IT skills that cut across all IT careers, and they should offer minor areas of study that focus on certain key skills needed for specific IT jobs. "For example, if you like accounting or finances, you may want to work in financial systems," Gabriel says. "I don't know of any university with a specific focus on the things you need to know for financial systems -- things like process flows, change management, chart of account conversions and project accounting. Universities could help students focus on certain skills and competencies. Students would still have a general IT degree, but it would be geared toward what really interests them."

As it is, Gabriel says, students seem to get little guidance from college career counselors or other university resources about determining where their skills really fit and what types of jobs they could get.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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