The Future Face of IT

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If you read enough reports about the deteriorating state of high school students’ performances in mathematics and the hard sciences, the dwindling number of collegiate computer science majors and the projected decrease in the population of skilled professionals as the baby boomers cycle out of the workforce, your outlook on the future of the IT industry in the United States can sour pretty quickly. Well, as is often the case, the map is not the territory, and doom-and-gloom predictions based solely on hard statistics don’t quite seem to align with the actual circumstances. I recently had the opportunity to visit Cisco’s regional office here in Chicago for one of the company’s Job Shadow Day events, which brought in area high school and college students for career advice, technology demonstrations, games and facility tours, all of which were conducted by volunteers from the organization’s workforce. While there, I was able to scope out the next generation of techies, and the experience left me a good deal more hopeful for the future of IT.

E Pluribus Unum
The watchword for these newcomers is diversity. I noticed that there was no prevailing racial or ethnic group among the 125 or so attendees. There were plenty of Hispanic-Americans, African-Americans, Indian-Americans, Arab-Americans and Caucasian-Americans (and probably a few other hyphenated Americans I’m leaving out) at the event.

Granted, Chicago doesn’t resemble much of America, demographically speaking, and it probably wouldn’t be accurate to say that students at other Job Shadow Day events held in sites across the country were similarly diverse. Yet it is a sign of things to come. Unlike other nations in the developed world, the U.S. population is actually growing, though it’s not through high birth rates, but rather immigration. The considerable influx of U.S. citizens from regions such as South Asia, the Far East and Latin America will have a huge impact on the makeup of the workforce in upcoming decades, and this incoming group will be at the vanguard of this trend.

What Brings Them In?
There are many factors drawing young people into the IT profession today. One of main attractions is the fact that technology has become inescapable in professional, home and academic life. As a result, several of today’s young people—like Job Shadow Day participants and Robert Morris College students Adrian Nazario and Jovan Barker—have been drawn into IT early on through practical applications of various technologies and tools. Barker first considered the possibility of an occupation in IT while designing machine parts as a student at a technical school, while Nazario’s interest in a tech career picked up when his high school math teacher opened a computer lab and taught him and other students about binary code.

This early exposure accomplishes two things: It produces highly technically capable individuals at young ages (many of the students at Job Shadow Day indicated that they had already earned a CCNA certification), and it controverts the nerd reputation that destroys some IT careers before they even begin. As Nazario explained, “I don’t consider myself a geek.”

Is IT a Boy’s Club?
Although most of the participants in the Job Shadow Day event in Chicago were male, I’d estimate that more than a third were female, a solid number when compared to the percentage of women who make up the current IT workforce. Still, both Nazario and Barker said many of the female students at their school have dropped out of computing classes they’ve taken. They suggested this was due to intimidation from the overwhelming number of men in the courses or lack of interest in the subject matter rather than a deficiency of skill. “They were very smart people,” Barker said.

Another possible explanation for the low number of women in the IT workforce pipeline is the perception that the industry is basically a boy’s club. “I heard a female student say, ‘They’ll never hire a woman,’” said Chris Nassar, an associate dean and computer science professor at Robert Morris College. “I think the women are worried about getting jobs.”

The solution? It’s hard to say: Although there are far fewer of them, women already earn slightly more in average annual IT salary than men do, which is rare for any industry, let alone a male-dominated one. If more money doesn’t bring them in, then nothing might. However, Barker offered a novel approach: He invited his girlfriend to attend the Job Shadow Day with him, and she agreed. “She’s actually thinking about going into the Cisco Networking Academy,” he said.

He just might be on to something.

Brian Summerfield is Web editor for Certification Magazine. Send him your favorite study tips and tech tricks at brians@certmag.com.

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