Colleges Want Tech Programs Computing with More Students
By TIMOTHY MAGAW
4:30 am, April 8, 2013
Piquing a teenager's or 20-something's interest in the latest gizmo isn't a hard sell, though getting them engrossed in the technology that drives those widgets — and, more specifically, a career in it — is a whole other story.
Local colleges say interest in their computer science programs isn't quite up to snuff in order to keep pace with the rate at which local employers are scooping up their graduates. The pending onslaught of baby boomer retirements is complicating matters further, as Northeast Ohio's tech companies brace for an exodus of qualified workers on top of the already difficult task of staffing their growing enterprises.
Reports from the Northeast Ohio Software Association, or NEOSA, suggest local tech companies are on the prowl for workers. In a report issued late last year, NEOSA said 59% of the information technology companies responding to its survey expected to boost their staffing levels over the next 12 months, and more than half noted they had difficulty hiring top talent.
In January, a report from the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services found that 12% of all online job postings in the state were for computer and mathematical occupations. Those postings include openings for web developers, software engineers, IT project managers and computer systems analysts.
The need for IT help exists even though there isn't a household-name technology giant based in the state.
“It's not Microsoft. It's not Google. It's not Facebook, but it's a lot of really cool stuff,” said Bill Blausey, chief information officer of Eaton Corp. and chairman of the Regional Information Technology Engagement Board, or RITE Board, a group charged with filling the tepid pipeline for IT workers.
The problem first reared its head when the dot-com bubble burst in the early 2000s, insiders say, as hordes of tech companies that feverishly attracted millions of dollars in venture financing went bust. Since the implosion, enrollments in college programs related to computer science haven't quite generated the same allure as in the late 1990s, though the numbers have started to rebound, albeit slightly.
“There was at least a public perception it was not a field to go into, and I think that's what kind of led to a shrinking pipeline,” said Jodi Tims, chair of Baldwin Wallace University's mathematics and computer science department. “When you couple that with the problem on the other end with retirements, people really decided we needed to start paying attention to this.”
Both locally and nationwide, tech and university leaders are working to drum up interest in the tech field. With the backing of high-profile tech gurus such as Microsoft's Bill Gates and Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, a Seattle-based entrepreneur this year launched Code.org, a nonprofit geared to pushing computer science-related courses in elementary, middle and high schools.
On the local front, as part of a weeklong series of events produced by NEOSA to promote the regional IT sector, the RITE Board is sponsoring for the first time a half-day summit April 19 aimed at bringing together educators, employers and students to discuss the opportunities in the IT field. The keynote speaker is A.J. Hyland, former CEO of Hyland Software in Westlake.
“There's a lack of understanding, not only among the kids but guidance counselors and teachers who don't know what it means to be in IT,” Mr. Blausey said. “There are jobs at Eaton, Hyland or Microsoft, but to them IT is just the Internet and a phone.”
That faulty perception of what a career in IT could include is the result of computer science's diminishing role in middle and high schools, according to Paula Caso, a mathematics and computer science teacher at North Olmsted High School.
Unlike in years past, if Ms. Caso can't enroll more than 15 students in her Advanced Placement computer science course, the class is axed from the course roster. She also noted there's a hesitance to offer introductory computer courses due to budget constraints and staffing issues.
“Unless they make computer science a requirement, it's probably not going to last,” Ms. Caso said.
A taste of tech
As such, local colleges are reaching out to students before they step on campus to promote their computer-related degree programs. Baldwin Wallace, for instance, this month will host a programming contest for high school students in conjunction with OEConnection, a Richfield-based company that provides online systems to car dealers and collision repair shops to help them find replacement parts.
Part of the reason OEConnection linked up with Baldwin Wallace to sponsor the competition is to help shore up interest in the IT field because the company has had difficulty filling tech-related positions, said Amy French, its director of marketing and human resources.
The University of Akron offers a series of “career explorations,” which allows students at the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) high school the university helped launch in Akron receive hands-on experience in disciplines they might not have considered as careers, including computer information systems.
“There was this kind of unrealistic view that these are people who sit in a room all day and don't interact with people, which isn't true,” said Susan Ramlo, a professor and special projects coordinator for STEM education initiatives at the university.
“We expose them to a broader view that working with computers might not be what they envision,” Dr. Ramlo said.
While Dr. Ramlo said the University of Akron's computer information systems program is bursting at the seams, the enrollment surge has been buoyed by nontraditional, older students looking for new career paths. Kent State University's computer science program, meanwhile, has grown, in part due to a surge of international students, according to Javed Khan, the program's chair.
“As far as local talent, that's less than what it is needed,” Dr. Khan said. “There is a bottleneck. If we do not train our own kids in computing, the need is so high we have to fill it up by immigrants.”
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