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High tech and higher education: Do they intersect?

Addressing a shortage of IT workers is no longer just an academic pursuit. Companies are getting into the act with innovative programs designed to create employees that match their skill needs. Rita Osborn takes a look at the partnership between industry and academia.


When most professions run into shortages, higher education institutions traditionally have created new programs that increase graduates. For example, in the early 1990s, many medical schools began to create programs and offer incentives to graduates who were willing to go into family practice. These programs were specifically developed to increase the number of physicians in general practice, a specialty that, at that time, had more openings than applicants.

The shortage of information technology professionals, however, is going to be more challenging to address. To cope with the challenge, institutions are creating new partnerships, and employers are coming up with innovative ways to teach new skills to current employees.

Old problems, new rules
According to Monika Aring, a graduate of Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government and Director and Principal Investigator for the Center for Workforce Development (CWD), the usual supply strategies for obtaining IT workers will not be effective.

One reason is because almost half of these workers are coming into the IT industry from totally unrelated backgrounds. And due to their divergent backgrounds, it will be difficult for employers to bring workers up to speed.

To accomplish this monumental task, more employers are taking on the role of trainer in non-traditional ways, said Aring. CWD research found that in high-performing work organizations, 70 percent of learning is informal; that is, it happens outside courses, classrooms, or training events.

"IT workers need to be masters at informal learning, and, according to our research, corporations have a lot of influence over the quality of what workers learn informally,” she said.

Phil Farley, a higher education analyst with the Gartner Group, said many companies are turning to educational portals such as edupoint.com to locate courseware for informal learning. The Web site lists more than 1.5 million courses offered worldwide.

But not all learning is informal. Many organizations are partnering with higher education institutions to address these needs in the classroom as well.

"Companies must have continuous, productive conversations between employer associations, universities, and governments that focus beyond short-term worker shortages and look at mid- to long-term solutions," Aring said.

Gail Howard, Director of Institutional Advancement, Economic Development, and Constituent Outreach at Arizona StateUniversity , said employers also need to hire people who are "bright, capable, and flexible, and have a good general background in the desired subject area." Employers then need to use their own facilities and their relationships with a local university so that as the need arises, they can partner to train people about the specifics of new technologies.

Sharing the challenge
Corporations and universities face a number of workforce challenges in providing that training, however. Aring lists four:
  1. Employee loyalty. With the threat of downsizing, employees are more motivated to learn skills that are of value to themselves rather than to the organization.
  2. Devising a continuous learning system. Ever-evolving careers and jobs will require ongoing learning. Corporate and higher education partnerships need to continuously examine changing needs and devise curriculums to meet those needs.
  3. Avoid privatizing knowledge. Universities, corporations, and governments must partner, since no single institution will possess the resources for future R & D.
  4. Move beyond outdated departmentalized learning. Universities must integrate a broad variety of courses and learning disciplines so graduates will have a broader base for new knowledge and problem solving abilities. This is especially important in high-tech fields.

When companies control learning
Motorola Corporation and Solomon Software are examples of companies that have used partnerships and creativity to meet their respective needs.

For example, Motorola Corporation has established its own university, but it does not provide degrees, only certification. The philosophy behind Motorola University is that training and education are critical for providing customer satisfaction and quality improvement.

Since its inception 12 years ago, Motorola says the program has:
  • Increased productivity an average of 12.3% per year
  • Eliminated 99.7% of in-process defects
  • Saved more than $11 billion in manufacturing costs
  • Realized an average annual compounded growth rate of 17% in revenues, earnings, and stock price

Aring said Motorola told her several years ago that it benchmarks its course results against those of leading universities and found they could produce learning outcomes 10 times faster than the leading university.

Creating synergy
Solomon Software , headquartered in Findlay, OH, recently joined forces with The University of Findlay to begin offering two four-year degree programs that utilize Solomon Software's management software suite, Solomon IV.

The programs—Business Application Consultant and Information Systems Analyst—are part of the university’s Technology Management program. Both programs offer a bachelor of science degree and are designed to prepare graduates for careers in the IT industry.

Graduates of the Business Application Consultant program will have the ability to develop client needs assessment studies, manage client implementation projects, and handle overall client relations. Graduates of the Information Systems Analysts program will be able to understand the inner workings of the technology infrastructure within a business and apply their skills to the more technical side of the equation.

Both degree programs, which are being offered for the first time in January 2000, have a total enrollment of 50, or approximately 1 percent of total enrollment. IBM is providing the Netfinity 5600 server for hands-on learning, and students will be required to pass the most current, appropriate certification exams before receiving their degrees.

"Because Solomon is located in Findlay, it gives us an opportunity to work closely with the company to offer our students relevant, up-to-date degree programs that will enable our students to begin their IT careers immediately following graduation," said Dr. Kenneth Zirkle, president of the university.

Graduates will also be able to keep up with changing technology through Solomon's additional class training, and individual CD-ROM and Web-based training.

Pomp and circumstance
Motorola University and Solomon Software are solid examples of how corporations are partnering with higher education to meet tomorrow's workforce needs. But such partnering does have risks.

"Universities need to get off their deeply conservative ways of doing things so they can grow and spread knowledge. However, they need to avoid being "owned" by corporations who require them to "privatize" knowledge,” Aring said.

 Corporations will need to find the right balance between their IT needs and those of the university and the public. Only time will tell where the balance lies.

Rita Osborn is a writer and editor. She is a former public relations and marketing consultant who has written exclusively for business and print media. Rita is currently working on her first book.

Has your company created a program with a local university to produce graduates to "your" specifications? Has it been successful? To share your experiences, click here .

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