Feds will pay schools to close the ‘geek gap’

Education Secretary Richard Riley joined other Clinton cabinet members in announcing initiatives aimed at luring college graduates into the information technology (IT) work force on Jan. 12. Riley said a new generation of “American minds” must be nurtured if the nation is to hold its lead in technology.

Said Secretary Riley, speaking to reporters at the University of California, Berkeley: “American minds really created the Information Age economy, and American minds can continue to lead it if we nurture the immense pool of talent here at home.”

Tickle-Me Elmo

Late last year, researchers at Stanford warned that, unless schools begin to produce more workers qualified for high-tech jobs, “everything—from Tickle-Me Elmo dolls to Boeing 737s”—will suffer.

“The shortage of talent in all areas, from programming to systems administration, means a shortage of quality,” said Avram Barr, co-director of software research at Stanford’s Computer Industry Project. “This can mean some very expensive quality problems. This can mean the loss of life.”

A technology brain drain has economic implications relevant to employers well beyond Silicon Valley. A survey conducted by Virginia Tech indicates the shortage now is affecting firms not usually associated with technology per se—including banks, hospitals, and retailers. Increasingly, companies of all kinds depend on programmers to design and operate high-tech systems and equipment.

“Without decisive action now,” warns the Virginia Tech report, “the shortfall could send the financial prospects of many companies both in and out of the IT industry into a sustained tailspin.”

The study estimated that 346,000 computer programmer and systems analyst jobs are vacant in U.S. companies with more than 100 employees. That’s about 10 percent of the “core” IT work force of programmers, systems analysts, and computer engineers, Virginia Tech reported.

America’s New Deficit

Last September, Commerce Secretary William Daley’s Office of Technology released a report called “America’s New Deficit: The Shortage of Information Technology Workers.” The shortage, if not reversed, could impair the United States’ economic performance, the study concluded. It forecast the need for one million IT professionals over the next decade.

At the press conference, however, Daley said his department now expects there will be a need for more than 1.3 million new high-tech workers over the next ten years. “That’s more than 40 times the enrollment at Berkeley,” said Daley.

Why are students shying away from lucrative careers in technology, when many of them have used computers since they can remember?

In the early 1990s, Stanford’s Barr explained, the market was glutted with workers, the result of layoffs in large technology corporations. Coupled with an influx of foreign programmers, the layoffs “unfortunately made [information technology] look like a poor career choice,” he said.

Then, there’s what the Stanford researcher called “The Dilbert Principle”:

“There’s the perception that technology people are geeks. It’s not appealing to the broader population. Bill Gates has done a lot for the status of geeks in this country—and their commanding salaries—but obviously not enough.”

Improving Schools

The dwindling supply of technology majors, which has fallen by 40 percent in the last 10 years, puts additional pressure on your schools to get teachers up to speed and do a better job of preparing students for careers in technology.

In his comments, Secretary Riley emphasized the importance of school-to-work programs for encouraging student interest in IT, saying they “offer an ideal opportunity for the technology industry to have a hand in cultivating its future work force.”

Key programs outlined by Secretary Riley include Star Schools, the Technology Literacy Challenge Fund, Innovation Challenge Grants, and school-to-career program initiatives, including new awards to attract industry and trade groups and a Job Shadow Day.

(For further details of the federal programs announced by Secretary Riley, see Capitol Action, page 37.)

Virginia Tech study:


Department of Commerce Office of Technology Administration


Stanford Computer Industry Project


Business Week




eSchool News Staff

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