Selling Teens on IT

Prompted by the IT worker's poor public image and the growing shortage of skilled IT professionals, a new media campaign hopes to convince kids that this is one exciting career field they should get in on.

With all the attraction to technology games, gadgets and instant messaging, you'd think teens would finally view information technology jobs as pretty cool, right? Think again. The profession appears to have made little headway in remaking its image with kids, who still see technology professionals as anything but cool. This isn't good news for workforce experts who hope to see more technology workers entering the labor pool in the coming years.

The problem? Image - despite the popularity of the Internet with young people. When asked to draw their image of a typical technology worker, a focus group of middle school students recently portrayed a nerdy guy with thick glasses, spiky hair, high-rise pants and a pocket protector. The guy was sleeping under a desk, because the students said they thought technology workers work 24 hours a day.

"Kids want to play with technology but don't want to be technical workers," asserts Phyllis Eisen, executive director of the Center for Workforce Success at the Washington-based National Association of Manufacturers (NAM). "They want to use computers rather than program them."

In response to statistics that by 2008, the U.S. will require more than 2 million new, highly skilled IT workers, the U.S. Department of Commerce's Office of Technology Policy, together with the NAM and a number of corporations, is launching GetTech, a campaign to inspire teens to prepare for the technology-driven jobs of tomorrow.

The campaign includes print and TV ads, an information packet available through a toll-free phone number and a Web site, The goal is to encourage U.S. students to develop the fundamental math, science and technology skills that will enable them to take advantage of the high wage opportunities in the New Economy.

The premise of GetTech is that you have to catch kids early - and you also have to influence parents to encourage their children to pursue IT careers.

Kamran Khan, vice president of IT at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., says he agrees with the need for such a campaign. "We need to market information technology more in our schools and provide students with a positive spin on a high-tech career," he says. "A good way to do this is to have mentors and advisers for the younger generation."

A centerpiece of the campaign is a series of public-service announcements for TV and radio produced by the nonprofit firm Women in Film in Hollywood. The spots aim to overcome the fear factor, which Women in Film Vice President Judith Parker Harris says is a major roadblock for teens considering high-tech careers. "We want to get kids past their fear of technology by emphasizing that you'll miss out on really cool stuff if you don't 'get tech,' " says Harris.

GetTech will be reaching out to minorities and teen-age girls, who are statistically least likely to take advanced math and science classes. "Even though it was recently reported that girls' use of the Internet has increased 126%, the number of girls saying they wanted to go into engineering has actually decreased, to under 10%," Eisen says.

The TV spot aimed at kids shows a group of rappers, all nonwhite or female, singing a catchy tune about how you could be a millionaire at age 30 if you "get tech". A spot aimed at parents shows a bright golden globe floating down from the dot in in the sky. The ball lands in a parent's hand, and she passes it on to her child.

"Parents are also intimidated by technology," Harris explains. "We're trying to reassure parents that they can do it. They can work with their kids in math and science."

GetTech Drive Draws Mixed Reviews

What do hiring managers, educators and other information technology labor experts think about the GetTech campaign and its role in addressing the IT skills shortage? Computerworld asked Ira S. Wolfe, president of Success Performance Solutions in Leola, Pa..; IT recruiter Ernest Ball at The Epitec Group in Southfield, Mich.; Kamran Khan, vice president of IT at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.; and Joanne Kelleher, human resources director at Pinnacle Decision Systems Inc. in Middletown, Conn.

What are the qualities, attitudes and skills of entry-level IT hires just out of college today?

Wolfe: The one most significant change is that young people look at first jobs as opportunities to "try the career on" before taking it home. College is only one step in the ladder of career achievement. A significant problem is gender. Less than 10% of computer science majors in college are women, although they make up over 50% of the workforce.

Khan: Entry-level applicants are very motivated, dedicated and understand the new emerging technologies. They are eager to work on challenging projects that have a state-of-the-art flavor.

Ball: Entry-level candidates in today's market are better-informed and educated than their counterparts were 10 years ago. Today's applicant has done far more research on trends, emerging technology and prospective employers.

Kelleher: Most recent grads just don't get what the business world is all about. One resume that came in this week talked about all the great things the person did in school, including his extracurricular activities, but it had nothing about the business skills he'd learned in class. His problem was typical. Colleges need to put more emphasis on the business applications of technology.

Are you aware of the GetTech campaign? If so, what do you think of it?

Kelleher: Overall, the idea of the campaign is a good one, and I like the design and the content of the Web site. My concern is how they are planning to promote it. It doesn't matter how good the message is, if it doesn't get to the right audience, nothing will happen. Also, they should pay more attention to giving teens immediate answers on the Web site.

Ball: Programs like GetTech are critical to the continued success and development of tomorrow's leaders in technology. From such efforts, we will see the next generation of leaders like Bill Gates and Larry Ellison.

Khan: I am a proponent of such a campaign, provided that students also pay attention to reading, writing and sciences that are essential to a well-rounded education so they can become good communicators. We need to market information technology more in our schools and provide students with a positive spin on high-tech careers. One way to do this is to provide mentors and advisers for our younger generation.

Do you think IT careers have a negative image? Do you think the computer nerd stereotype turns off youngsters?

Kelleher: The nerd stereotype is still there, but it isn't as strong as it used to be now that technology has changed from mainframes and punch cards to the New Economy and the Internet. Kids are now exposed to technology at a much younger age.

Even my 4-year-old can use a mouse. This upcoming generation, which grew up with home computers, won't have the same view as past generations because, in a way, they're all computer nerds.

Ball: The stereotype still exists. Youngsters who would have considered a career in IT but chose law or medicine did so because those professions presented them with images that felt cooler. The Internet has started to bridge that chasm.

Today, there are more 25-year-old business owners with cool work environments who are acting as mentors and role models for today's youth. Things are changing, but there's plenty of work to be done

Khan: I do not think that IT careers have a negative image, especially during the past five years, when technology has helped so many of us.

In many cases, "nerd" is being used today as a positive description of someone's accomplishments in development of IT systems.

Wolf: IT to many people does mean nerdy and techy. However, 90% of all IT jobs are at non-IT companies. It's not all programming and systems analysts. Web developers and sales are also IT careers.

There is a huge debate on whether the U.S. labor force lacks the skills that employers want to hire, or the bodies to work in IT in the first place. What do you think is the underlying cause of the labor shortage in IT, and what do you think should be done about it?

Khan: Our colleges and universities aren't graduating enough computer science/information systems majors and Ph.D.s. Due to high salaries in IT, the number of teachers and professors has declined as they opt for more lucrative positions in the private sector. We need to provide incentives for both teachers and students to increase the numbers of graduates in IT.

Also, the government needs to provide more training, scholarships and grants to students who want to pursue IT careers. We cannot and should not depend on foreign labor. We have to invest in our own citizens.

Wolfe: Technology is competing with every other industry. Health care worker and teacher shortages will exceed those of technology. The solution is a strategic one and will require every industry to look at ways to be more productive with fewer people and to avoid recruitment, hiring and retention mistakes.

Ball: There is no one reason for the labor shortage in IT careers. Certainly, subjects like math and science, which are critical to technology, need to be stressed at a younger age. As a culture, we have moved away from the sciences and arts and we need to refocus some of that energy.

You'd be surprised at the number of musicians and artists who are also involved in IT. We need to promote ourselves better. After all, how many other careers can you think of where a youngster can run his own successful international business and compete globally while riding a Razor Wheel through the office - all before being able to vote? Let's see those corporate attorneys compete with that.

Bring it on!

Manfred is a freelance writer in Catskill, N.Y.

Copyright © 2000 IDG Communications, Inc.

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