Academia: Preparing the Next Generation

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It’s no secret that the job market is tight. With fewer openings and lower headcounts, employers are now being more selective in their search for IT professionals. Those chosen to fill available spaces bring greater versatility and overall capabilities to the table. Public and private training and educational institutions also are changing with the times to help their learners successfully compete for jobs. So, what are educators doing to prepare the next generation of IT professionals for these new employment realities?

“People hear ‘technology’ and they run the other way, and I think that’s shortsighted,” said Clyde Cox, program coordinator of computer and internetworking technologies for the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, Ill. “Nearly every business needs computers and has a network. I tell my students, if you know how to do something that requires hands-on work and face time with users, there is going to be a demand for your services. Those jobs will be much less affected by outsourcing.”

Richard Darnell, department coordinator of the telecommunications technology department at Salt Lake Community College in Salt Lake City, Utah, said that several areas in IT do not have enough qualified professionals. “These positions are not necessarily at the entry level,” he said. “But a person has to put in time in order to progress and reach the higher end of the profession. The areas that are really hot right now in the IT industry are network security, including forensics, wireless and database administration.”

Nancy Hope, academic program manager of technology at Heald College in San Francisco, said she sees certification as a measure of how well colleges are preparing the next generation of technology workers. “Five years ago it was far easier to find a good-paying IT job,” she said. “Now people who want to be in IT need an edge—a means of proving they can do the tasks assigned. Certifications are a step toward that proof.”

Cox reinforced that notion. “Any technology program at a community college today that did not map to industry standards, would not be viable in my opinion,” he said. “Students would not enroll, and employers would not value the graduates as highly. At the community college level, we are all about providing an educational experience that not only broadens the learner, but also helps them either secure a job or go further with their present employer.”

A certification can make an individual more marketable. “Unless the employer is familiar with the school, he or she has no independent means of knowing how rigorous the program is,” Darnell said. “When a job candidate comes to an employer with a degree and certifications, it gives the employer more to go on.”

But it’s not only important for the students to be certified—it is essential for the instructors as well. “We use IT certifications to help judge the qualifications of our instructors,” Hope said. “If they are going to teach these classes, they have to be certified. It’s as much a proof point for us as it is for any IT employer.”

College is not just for the 18-to-22-year-old crowd anymore, and it can be a challenge to provide pertinent education for students of all ages and career levels. “The majority of our learners are older adults working in the industry now,” Cox said. “They need certifications such as CompTIA A+ and CompTIA Network+, or Cisco CCNA and CCNP to remain competitive and progress. These adults are very focused on courses rather than on the degree.”

Cox, Darnell and Hope all agreed that certification will continue to have a future in education. “If a student doesn’t have the experience, but can instead present a combination of an academic degree and an industry-recognized certification or a series of certifications, then in terms of entry-level, that puts a student in a very strong position,” Darnell said. “I believe that certification will increasingly become a focus in IT degree programs. I also believe that more and more schools will view certification as making their programs more marketable.”

“For the junior colleges, I definitely see that there’s going to always be a need for certification because they help people in the job market, both for obtaining new positions and progressing with an employer,” Cox added.

Hope expects the use of hands-on testing to increase, spurring a change in how colleges help students master those skills. “I believe that the next generation of IT professionals is going to be much more well rounded,” she said. “This is a very exciting time for IT professionals, as well as educators.”

William Vanderbilt is vice president for education and training at CompTIA, the largest global IT industry association, with more than 19,000 members in 89 countries. He can be reached at wvanderbilt@certmag.com.

 

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