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Recruiting to fill the many faces of IT roles

Posted on Oct 30, 2018 :: Cover Story
Posted by , Insight on Technology Staff Writer

Kim Iversen has two messages she wants to get across to students, parents, workers looking at new opportunities and community members: All jobs are tech jobs and the New North region is facing a severe shortage of IT workers.

“I just checked, and looking across all industries for IT jobs, there are 800 openings in a 50-mile radius around Appleton,” says Iversen, director of the NEW IT Alliance. “That’s before Foxconn comes in and wants to hire 200 people in IT or the baby boomers working in IT who are about to retire.”

According to estimates from Microsoft, 1.4 million computer science-related jobs will be available nationwide by 2020, yet college graduates are expected to fill fewer than a third of those. In the New North, a study found 3,000 new IT jobs will be created by 2021.

As for the axiom that all jobs are IT jobs, Iversen says technology is integrated into every job, whether it’s a white collar or blue collar position. In marketing, it could be understanding analytics or how to add content to websites or social media accounts, while in manufacturing it could be using a computer diagnostics program to determine why a machine isn’t working instead of taking out a tool box and opening the machine.

The other dire news facing employers is that the next generation of workers is not overly interested in pursuing an IT career even though they may live on their phones or other electronic devices.

“They (students) use their phone like a toaster or car — they know how to do what they want to do, but they are not interested in learning how to fix it or how it works,” Iversen says. “There is definitely a lack of students interested in IT careers at just the same time the field is seeing high growth. It’s not a good combination.”

But the NEW IT Alliance, which was created in 2015, and other organizations are looking to reverse that trend and get not only middle and high school students interested in IT careers, but also those in college or workers looking to reset their careers altogether.

“The task is daunting when you are living it day in and day out, but it is something we all need to work on because if we don’t, companies who need IT workers and can’t find them here will look elsewhere,” she says.

Workplaces go high-tech

When considering an IT job, people usually think about writing code, maintaining the server or helping someone who can’t get a program to work on their computer. But Ann Franz, director of the NEW Manufacturing Alliance, says nearly all jobs she sees require some technical knowledge and aptitude.

“When I think of manufacturing, I immediately think of high-tech. Some companies you walk in and your mouth drops because of all the technology,” she says.

Manufacturing jobs require more computer knowledge and skills than in years past, Franz says. For example, industrial maintenance mechanics “need more than a wrench or a screwdriver. They need to know some basic programming skills to fix a machine.”

Across the board, manufacturing employees need to update their technical skills continually, Franz says. “There is a higher skill set needed when utilizing AI, robotics, etc.,” she says.

As for attracting today’s middle and high school students to a career in IT, Iversen says they can face multiple barriers, including a lack of computer science courses in high schools and parents who may try to dissuade them from working in IT.

“They (parents) see headlines about outsourcing IT jobs and think it’s not a stable career. But while there are jobs that are outsourced, there are plenty of IT-related jobs still here,” she says. “IT figures into so many careers and it’s a wide variety. It’s like looking at health care and thinking the only jobs are neurosurgeons and not realizing there are numerous jobs requiring a broad range
of skills.”

Several initiatives are underway for increasing access to computer science courses in high school.

Microsoft Philanthropies brought its TEALS (Teaching Education and Literacy in Schools) program to schools in Brown and Outagamie counties to expand computer science offerings. TEALS pairs a volunteer from the IT industry with a math or science teacher to team teach a computer science course for a year. After that, the math or science teacher is ready to teach the class on his or her own.

When Microsoft President Brad Smith spoke to the Greater Green Bay Chamber earlier this fall, he said the company was halfway to its goal of having TEALS in every high school in Brown and Outagamie counties. But while that is great news, he admitted there still is a problem — most students enrolled in computer science classes are white boys.

“With TEALS, we brought computer science courses to 165 students who didn’t have the opportunity before to participate, but only 17 girls participated” during the last school year, Smith said. “We have an exciting opportunity to make computer science and IT careers in general more appealing and more inspiring to girls.”

TEALS helps teach computational thinking and problem-solving skills that are in demand in all fields, whether it is manufacturing or marketing. Microsoft recognizes that exposing students to computer science and STEM curriculum before college is essential to helping them see both areas as possible career paths.

The NEW IT Alliance has created a computer science advisory board to open communication and learn more about what area schools are doing and to help educate school counselors about the breadth of available IT jobs.
At the college level, Iversen says the IT Alliance created a pilot program with the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh where students can shadow IT professionals.

“This program is for students on the fence or are not sure where or how they may fit into an IT career,” she says. “We have to tackle this (lack of students pursuing IT careers) at multiple levels.”

Women in Technology offers programs for female students from grade school through college to inspire them to pursue careers in IT. WIT4Girls, for example, helps girls see how their innovative ideas can lead to technology careers. In higher education, WITonCampus clubs provide support to those exploring IT careers by pairing female students with a tech professional and offering other activities involving career exploration.

Developing career pathways

For those students and career-changing adults who are interested in pursuing an IT career, it can be challenging to know where to start. That’s why Franz says it is important to develop career pathways to help them find their way.

“Kids may be on their phones texting, but that’s not using computer skills,” she says. “We need to get kids involved in different classes, TechSpark and after-school programs to help them learn and develop those skills.”

NEWMA is planning to conduct a study in early 2019 on developing career pathways around Industry 4.0, which is the trend of automation and data exchange in manufacturing technologies, Franz says.

Microsoft’s Smith echoed the importance of developing career pathways for the jobs of the 21st century.

Workers need to continue learning and growing their skills,” he says. “That’s the way we can bridge that digital divide and help improve everyone’s prosperity.”

Microsoft’s STEM gap study, which looked at girls in grades kindergarten through 12, shows that introducing students to STEM concepts early, encouraging hands-on activities and providing role models are vital to closing the gap between the number of boys andgirls pursuing IT careers.

As for people already in the workforce, it is not too late for them to update their skills and land a well-paying IT job, says Michelle 

Schuler, manager of Microsoft’s TechSpark Wisconsin. She says employees need to have the opportunity to learn new skills and enhance their current ones since they too are vital to the region’s workforce.

“Technology is creating a new digital economy, full of new economic opportunities, but for many people, those opportunities are out of reach because they don’t have the skills these jobs require,” Schuler says. “This is causing a widening gap in earning potential. Addressing this issue involves changing the way we educate and train people, but it also involves changing the way companies hire and support their employees.”

Iversen says more needs to be done to help individuals who do not have the financial resources to learn new skills for better, higher-paying jobs.

“We are looking at the barriers out there and wondering, how can we help people overcome them? What about the person working two jobs to make ends meet — how can they find the time or funds to go back and be retrained for a job that’s in high demand?” she says. “What can we do as a community to help solve this problem?”

Iversen says filling the IT job gap needs to be addressed “at multiple levels. We need to change the paradigm out there that everyone who works in IT is introverted. We are using IT to solve problems, improve health care, improve the environment, and it all involves creativity.”