The IT industry needs skilled workers and students are answering the call
This feature first appeared in the Summer 2021 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.
From an early age, my parents pushed me to get a job. It started when I was 11 or 12, mowing lawns for a few elderly neighbors, shoveling snow, and taking on various small tasks in my father’s construction business. Eventually, I even found myself dipping a teenaged toe in the fast-food industry, where I learned about professional conduct and sharpened my ability to greet customers with a smile. It was always “my pleasure” to “serve” them.
As a teenager, I always had a job. I enjoyed working and, more importantly, I enjoyed always having money in my pocket to be able to purchase the things I wanted. While my friends were begging their parents for cash, I could purchase my teenage wants readily. My first “major” purchase — and I regret it to this day — was a $1,200 stereo system with massive tower speakers that I could blast my teenage rock of the early ’90s on.
Yes, that stereo system provided me with hours musical entertainment, but I had never made such a LARGE purchase. I recently parted ways with those large tower speakers and massive cabinet. It took me more than 20 years to get over the “value” in that system that was no longer there.
In 2021, I work with educators across the southeast United States. And “getting a job” still looms large in the minds of teen and young adults, in addition to being a prominent element of their formal schooling. The goal of most (if not all) of the educational institutions I work with is to provide knowledge to students to improve their lives — and help set them on a rewarding career path.
It’s not uncommon for employability to be a key metric in measuring a program’s success. Both secondary and post-secondary educational institutions are largely focused on career paths and employability. Employers are looking for qualified job candidates who have the skills and mindset needed to become effective and productive workers.
Your new mantra: High wage, high growth
Many states are focused on two key terms when they look at building educational programs: high wage and high growth. States are looking to bolster their economies with professionals who can fill high wage jobs in high growth industries. Information technology, computer science (programming), and cybersecurity provide high wage and high growth opportunities throughout the country.
State employment agencies are working in conjunction with state educational systems to help students be prepared to succeed in high wage jobs with high growth employers. Funding for these types of programs is flowing more readily as states view their educational programs as a smart investment that can promote the growth of a larger tax base and stronger economy.
A key part of the Perkins V Educational Act passed in the summer of 2020 is to provide funding to states that promote these high wage, high growth workforce development programs. In particular, many at the level of state and federal government want to encourage students to enter the workforce with professional certifications already on their résumés.
Especially as regards high school students throughout the United States, there is a push to promote the development of high wage and high growth industries through internships, apprenticeship programs, and, again, professional certifications. The goal is to get students the necessary certifications needed for entry-level jobs in high wage, high growth industries.
Imagine if, instead of cleaning out the grease trap on a restaurant grill, high school students across the country were working at help desks, pulling cables for networks, and getting their feet wet in jobs with the potential to lead them directly into flourishing careers. The goal for students should be to build foundational knowledge and skills during high school so they can jump into high wage, high growth careers directly out of high school.
IT students = vast untapped resource
The demand for workers to fill these jobs is so great that the United States government has created programs to promote apprenticeships in these high demand areas. You can learn more about them at apprenticeship.gov, which is the source of the following quote:
“Information technology (IT) companies and businesses in sectors with significant IT requirements face complex workforce challenges keeping up with the demands of rapid technological advancements. Apprenticeship is a proven solution for recruiting, training, and retaining world-class technology talent.”
Internship and apprenticeship programs are industry-driven and allow students the ability to enter a career path where they can develop and prepare for their future employment. For businesses, these types of programs help with recruiting, training, and retaining employees.
One of the major costs any business faces is hiring and training the right individual. With the correct internship or apprenticeship program in place, employers can mitigate this cost and have effective employees who are well trained and in place to make significant contributions to their company.
Recently I had a conversation with Linda Smith, who teaches at DeSoto County Career and Technology Center in Mississippi, about one of her students. Linda’s students had competed in a statewide contest in the IT field and found themselves losers of the competition. Her students realized they were at a disadvantage with one of the competing schools because they only had single-monitor workstations, while their competition was working with dual monitors and was able to work more efficiently.
Linda’s students put together a plan to raise funds for additional monitors to assist them in their efforts to be more competitive. Then COVID hit and everything got put on hold as students were sent home. This spring, one of her graduating students let her know in February that he was no longer concerned about the fundraiser and getting access to dual monitors.
When Linda asked why, the student had some interesting news: He told her that he was now working with dual monitors in the office where he was interning — and where he would be working full time after graduation from high school.
Student successes in South Carolina
The demand is there for students to make a significant impact on job growth in the IT field. The opportunities are there for students with solid IT skills to step in and succeed right away. Aaron Rhode, who is a student at Whale Branch Early College High School in Seabrook, S.C., is a great example of a student who has put in the work and is seeing the rewards of his efforts.
Aaron is currently working on his TestOut PC Pro and Client Pro certifications, and will be attending North Greenville University (NGU) in the fall. He also has a job working for the director of cybersecurity at NGU, who owns his own IT company — all while still in high school.
Aaron is just one of many students who got a head start on a career path at Whale Branch. John Williams, a veteran teacher, and leader in IT education in South Carolina, has produced his share of IT professionals over the years. John has students working all over the IT field from VC3, to the Department of Homeland Security, to Medical University of South Carolina (MUCS), and all branches of the military.
Many of John’s students find themselves working in the industry while putting themselves through college to further build their skills and knowledge. Williams stated, “Over the course of time, our program — using a combination of instructional resources, of which Test Out Lab Sim has been a very important component of that program — has been able to drive student success.
“By utilizing these resources students are getting and have been able to get jobs, internships, and apprenticeships, as well as place in national cybersecurity competitions, and earn rankings of 1st and 2nd in silver tier in the state of South Carolina.”
Opportunity for all
Not all schools and students have equivalent levels of opportunity. Some school systems operate in challenging environments that don’t easily promote access to internships and apprenticeship programs. Rural schools face an uphill battle in finding industry partners in their local areas where students can get hands-on IT employment experience.
Millicent Gerni, who teaches at Mattamuskeet Early College High School in North Carolina, lives in one of the most beautiful places in the country. Swan Quarter, North Carolina, on the Outer Banks, is a short drive away from some of the best saltwater and freshwater fishing anywhere. And if you are looking for a bear hunt, then Swan Quarter is your place.
Hunting for internships in IT in the vicinity of Swan Quarter is more difficult. Millicent is currently attempting to track down business partners to help her students get the real-world work experience they need to make significant contributions in the IT industry.
Millicent said, “It is difficult in such a rural environment, where we are literally an hour away from everything. I have students who are willing to learn and want the experience, but it is difficult to get the hands-on experience they need to further their interests in the field.”
A teacher like Millicent will, one way or another, find a way to help her students succeed. She is currently continuing her efforts to add business partners to her academic and professional committee. But there will be an extra level of commitment required to facilitate student interactions with professional IT employers in many parts of the United States.
IT employers at their wits’ end with trying to uncover new hotbeds of tech hiring should actively seek out and join forces with schools in rural or urban blind corners that need opportunities for students to get real professional experience. With many employers newly equipped to facilitate remote work, the potential to form such win-win partnerships has never been greater.
Tech employment’s (potential) bright future
The opportunities for success in the IT field are there for students. It is extremely important for educational institutions to partner with industry in fostering and training the next generation of IT professionals.
Those institutions that can harness and channel the largely untapped resource of these up-and-coming professionals will find themselves averting a panic over the lack of qualified employees in key skill areas. Both our economic stability and the future of technology growth is dependent of these partnerships being formed and cultivated.
The high school students of 2021 can choose to do more than cook hamburgers, run a cash register, or bag groceries. The opportunities are there for these students — any who are willing to put in the time and effort to master foundational IT skills — to launch their careers early and further their professional ambitions.
With the right encouragement and preparation, when a parent says to their teenager, “Get a job,” the sky is the limit and bright, committed teens can reach to the Moon. Who knows, maybe they’ll even be smart enough buy themselves something better than a vintage stereo system with tower speakers.