How to take over the classroom

Chances are you have a number of openings in your IS department. You’re not alone. There are an estimated 425,000 unfilled IT worker positions nationwide (in the United States). And pretty much like every other CIO, you’ve complained that there just aren’t enough qualified candidates for the jobs.

CIOs love to point the finger at academics and claim they’re not producing the kind of graduate who can become a seamlessly productive employee from day one. Educators don’t see it that way.

“Corporations have been wanting universities to solve their hot problems, with Java [experience] and MCSE [certifications],” says Jack Suess, CIO of the University of Maryland in Baltimore county. “That was never our mission – to be solving these kinds of very specific problems in a particular time frame.”

It seems to be a stand-off. Corporations want grads to be conversant with everything from the shiniest new programming language to the creakiest minicomputer in the vault. Schools continue to focus on balanced curricula. Yet schools and CIOs can get along. In some cases, companies are going into the classroom and taking over curricula. In other cases, teachers are taking sabbaticals in the real world so that when they return to the classroom they have more up-to-date skills. And there’s a new educational movement afoot to marry what academics want to teach with the skills that CIOs want in new hires. But it takes work both inside and out of the ivory tower.

Reaching Into the Classroom

Reconciling industry’s need-it-now goals with university ideals isn’t necessarily impossible. In fact, it can work beautifully when the two sides team up. One case in point is UPS. In the beginning of 2000, UPS’s Atlanta-area operations desperately sought a near-term infusion of Web layout and development talent. Fortunately, CIO Ken Lacy and Dudley Land, former vice-president of customer automation and UPS operations, found a helpful partner in Georgia State University. Ephraim McLean, professor of information systems, and David McDonald, academic program director in the computer information systems department, were eager to help UPS close its skills gap quickly.

The result of their efforts was a 21-week, dual-certificate prototype that ran from May through October. Half of the students – those destined for content creation – had to attend only the first 11 weeks for an HTML development certificate. The second group completed the full course for a grounding in both design and programming. There was no shortage of student interest: UPS targeted career-changers, who accounted for the 1,600 applicants for 17 open spots.

UPS’s goal was to create IT workers who could function from day one, both technically and professionally; and the desire was that every graduate would be immediately transitioned to a job at UPS. Although there’s nothing to stop new grads from leaving after the first day to shop their new-found skills elsewhere, UPS screened for loyalty, among other traits, when narrowing down the substantial stack of applicants.

All sorts of synergies helped make the partnership between UPS and Georgia State happen. The state of Georgia’s Intellectual Capital Partnership Program grants meant students could receive a state paycheque (actually a loan, waived if the student stays in a Georgia high-tech job) for attending the courses. Georgia State provided the instructors, and UPS provided the facilities. As of press time, the seven who completed the first half of the program have been hired by UPS.

Those Who Can

Georgia State isn’t the only school aware of the needs of business. Many other schools are not deaf to the input of industry, although employers will likely never be truly satisfied, says Kevin LaMountain, dean of career and student services at technical degree school DeVry Institutes in Phoenix. “A person would never, ever graduate from college if we put in every skill an employer wanted them to have,” he says. “We have to give [students] broad enough based knowledge so they can ride every ebb and flow. We’re not seeing any demand for Web developers at all coming through career services [now], but a year ago there were probably five employers on our advisory board where that’s all they wanted.”

Even if an academic department head is willing to fast-track a hot skill, finding capable teaching staff is a problem. People with the proven competency in those areas are not in the faculty lounge. “Are we going to find someone with 15 years experience in Oracle [to teach a database course]?” says LaMountain. “Someone with that experience is worth US$150,000 to US$200,000 to a company, and there’s no way any school or university can afford to have them full time.”

Neal Young is such an example. Currently a senior research scientist at Cambridge, Mass.-based Akamai Technologies Inc., a provider of content delivery services, Young went on leave from a tenure-track computer science professorship at Dartmouth College in 1997 (he officially quit in April 2001), in part to cash in on the considerable premium his skills commanded in the marketplace. He is interested in returning to the academic world some day, but he’ll go back with a greater awareness of the strengths of learning in the classroom and learning on the job. “In a business environment, what you learn is more chaotic,” he says. “It’s useful to separate education and work, much the same way you separate being a child and an adult – you don’t raise a child by making them go through all the things an adult has to go through. You give them a protected space to go through the idealistic things first.”

LaMountain thinks there is a way for the schools and the workplace to both get what they want: The companies that lock up talent like Young need to share him as part-time faculty or at the very least lend him out for instructor training. David Johnson, senior vice-president and CIO of Transamerica Real Estate Tax Service in Dallas, agrees. He suggests widespread industry exchange programs. Professors would be put to work in industry, many for the first time, to gather the exposure and experience they need to stay current. They’d swap their desks with a seasoned IT professional who can teach highly valuable skills. Johnson knows firsthand the value of straddling both worlds; he taught undergraduate and graduate-level technology courses part time for a decade.

Sharing personnel between the boardroom and the classroom would benefit all sides. “The fact is, if you’re a faculty member, you probably learned your technology five years ago,” says University of Maryland’s Suess. “The industry would like us to be producing graduates six to nine months later in [the hot new language] because none of their people know it either, but we have the same problems. It takes time to ramp up the skill base of people who are ultimately going to teach it.”

A More Perfect Union

While many computer science programs do adjust their curricula to reflect new strategies, there is a growing sense that they are simply not the optimal vehicle to assist with changing the disconnect. In general, employment-geared professional schools such as DeVry and ITT Technical Institutes portray themselves as more likely than the average ivory tower to heed industry requests. DeVry programs typically leave roughly 25 per cent of the content open to the discretion of local instructors and administrators so that skills and emphasis can be tweaked to suit the demands of area employers, LaMountain says.

Traditional academic institutions aren’t about to let professional schools trump them. Recently, business school-sponsored IT and computer information systems programs have been making a more conscious effort to align themselves with the interests of the hiring community. These new, cross-discipline initiatives, such as the four-year School of Informatics at Indiana University in Bloomington, are seeking to better match schooling with industry goals. And this academic initiative might just be the wave of the future. “It’s focused much more on the best practices, the best uses of applications in IT [than traditional CIS] in a whole variety of industries,” including mechanical and medical-focused informatics programs, says Michael McRobbie, Indiana University CIO and professor of computer science. The impetus for the new school – Indiana’s first in 20 years – came directly from the marketplace. “We established it because of feedback from business and industry. They needed people with broader skills,” he says.

McRobbie points out that while computer science departments do a good job of steering clear of potentially ephemeral hot skills, some areas of serious demand, such as a grounding in Microsoft technologies, need to be addressed at the highest level of education. “There’s no doubt universities are not focusing enough on providing training in those areas,” he says.

Peter J. Denning, professor of computer science at Fairfax, Va.-based George Mason University, strongly advocates the creation of IT schools such as IU’s School of Informatics and his own institution’s School of Information Technology and Engineering. In the August 2001 issue of Communications of the ACM (Association for Computing Machinery), Denning outlines a model curriculum that includes a mandatory semester-long internship and three semesters of a weekly professional responsibility workshop in addition to theoretical and applied technical learning. While schools that are working on meeting such a model number in the dozens – among them the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon, College of Computing at Georgia Tech, and the College of Information Science and Technology at the University of Nebraska at Omaha – he is optimistic that market pressures have posed the idea for explosive growth.

Despite the lingering divide, both academia and industry are showing signs of collaboration. Faculty panels do not stay up late at night trying to sabotage IT hiring managers, and the truth of the matter is that those managers need the students coming out of the school system. The path to training better IT workers may need to be greased every so often by improving company-academia communications or by encouraging companies to loan out employees as instructors, but at least the drawbridge to the ivory tower stands lowered. The quest to build the perfect 23-year-old who can effectively wield a mouse on day one, however, will likely never end.

The Bigger Problem

Graduates without Java skills? That’s only the tip of the iceberg.

Some believe that the universities, perhaps lured too far away from their general educational goals by the flood of technology, are failing at a more fundamental level. “I see a woeful number of graduates who come out who can’t even write a coherent document of any kind – specifications, cost/benefit analysis, even a white paper. They just can’t write,” says David Johnson, senior vice-president and CIO of Transamerica Real Estate Tax Service in Dallas. “They know a lot about tool sets, a lot about statistical development, C++ and Cobol, and how compilers are put together, but they have very little critical skills thinking. They can’t answer the question of why we would want to be doing this in a business.”

While Johnson stresses that his major complaint is in the quantity, not the quality of new hires available to him, he remains upset about graduates’ lack of basic abilities. “I can expect that I’ll bring somebody on board and I might have to bring them up to speed on technical skills. I can give that to them and get there quickly,” he says. “What I don’t have the time or stomach for is to train somebody how to think through things, how to ask hard questions, communicate and run a meeting.”

Freelance Writer Jason Compton is based in Evanston, Ill.