Employers across the nation are finding it increasingly difficult to fill information technology (IT) positions, mainly because of a shortage of qualified entry-level and advanced employees, according to industry experts.

Contrary to what many people believe–that available IT jobs are on the decline–businesses throughout the United States say the IT sector offers more job opportunities than ever, and they’re struggling to find employees to fill these many openings.

Industry insiders point to a few reasons for the shortage, including the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) education law and lingering perceptions from the dot-com bust that occurred earlier this decade. Now, experts are trying to change these perceptions–and they’re looking to schools for help.

Part of the reason many people think the IT field holds little promise is they don’t understand things have changed since 2000 and 2001, when the IT field took a hit, said Gene Longo, senior manager of U.S. field operations for Cisco Systems’ Networking Academy program.

“In 2000 and 2001, when the dot-com bust happened, and then [immediately after] September 11, we saw lots of layoffs in the IT and tech industries,” Longo said, adding that many students and professionals shied away from the IT field when they saw jobs were scarce.

But that was then. Job opportunities in areas such as computer software engineering, computer support, and systems administration are expected to increase must faster than the average for all occupations, with computer software engineering projected to be one of the fastest-growing occupations through 2014, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ “2006-07 Occupational Outlook Handbook.” According to the federal agency, computer systems analysts are expected to see a 31-percent increase in total employment from 2004 to 2014. Network systems and data communication analysts are expected to see a 55-percent increase in total employment during that time, and computer software engineers should see a 48-percent increase in employment.

Longo believes another reason for the lack of qualified IT employees in the United States can be traced to high school reform and NCLB, which puts the focus squarely on core skills such as reading, science, and math–and therefore might not give students the chance to explore IT courses or electives while in high school.

“States have to rethink how they measure success” if they are going solve the problem, he said.

Informing educators and students about opportunities in the IT field “can make a substantial difference in programs available to prepare IT workers and, ultimately, in the number of U.S. workers qualified to fill the positions,” said Don Knezek, chief executive officer of the International Society for Technology in Education. Student clubs, internships, and other creative programs that expose students to IT careers also can help, he said.

These activities “allow students to explore IT roles in schools, and in work settings outside schools, in ways that stimulate interest in IT careers … and allow them to consider an IT-related career they might otherwise never have considered,” Knezek said.

One such activity is Microsoft’s DigiGirlz technology day camp, which took place in June in cities from coast to coast. About 150 Microsoft employees pitched in to teach young women about their professions, company spokeswoman Katie Hasbargen said.

Teenagers from seven states, in grades eight through 10, attended sessions on computer hardware and software, programming and web site construction, internet safety, resume building, leadership, and career opportunities.

The camp ended June 14, when girls had a chance to shadow Microsoft employees. The company gives each camper about $1,000 worth of software and products to continue practicing at home.

The camp is one way Microsoft can encourage young women to pursue careers in technology, said Babs Coler, a community affairs manager for the company. Many of the camp’s participants come from rural areas and are exposed only to a few career options, Coler said.

Longo said the Cisco Networking Academy is another such program that is helping to refill the pipeline of qualified IT employees.

Cisco launched the program in 1997, and it now counts approximately 400,000 graduates in the United States. Schools and other educational institutions in all 50 states offer Networking Academy courses. The majority of these courses are taught at high schools and community colleges, and students can earn credits that transfer to four-year colleges. They also can take an exam to become a Cisco-certified network associate.

States’ initiatives might help, too, Longo says, as “government leaders are saying we need to regain our technical competitiveness.”

In fact, many states are supporting initiatives to build up a pool of talented IT workers. Kentucky, for instance, has implemented a statewide initiative–called Prescription for Innovation–to deploy broadband connectivity to each of its 120 counties by the end of this year.

“I would not have expected to see such IT growth in a state like Kentucky,” Longo said of a recent visit to the state. He said Kentucky is on track to meet its end-of-the-year goal. Each county was charged with developing its own technology plan for the statewide initiative, which Longo believes has fueled more interest in technology and the opportunities it affords.

Kentucky, which has a shortage of skilled workers in IT fields, is “representative of what we are seeing in other states,” Longo said. “Cisco’s channel partners are saying they can’t find enough people to hire. The companies, businesses, and IT users we’re hearing from say there is not only a shortage of entry-level employees, but there’s a much larger shortage at the advanced-capability level.”

Another reason for this shortage, according to Longo: “When the industry took a dive, companies stopped providing funds for their employees to go back to school and earn more advanced degrees.”

Still another problem that makes companies feel the IT crunch is that employers have raised the bar in terms of what they expect from their IT staff.

“In the past, IT has always been thought of as the shop in the basement, but the CEOs who are getting it understand that IT is becoming a core part [of business],” Longo said. “It’s becoming more of a solution to business problems.”

He added: “In the late 90s, anyone with an industry certification could get a high-paying job. Now, some level of postsecondary education is preferred.”

To help meet these changing workplace needs, the Cisco Networking Academy has created new courses that focus on both entry-level and more advanced skills.

These new courses fit in with the program’s focus on giving students the skills they need to pursue IT careers in business-critical positions and industries ranging from technology and finance to medicine and entertainment. The newly expanded curriculum consists of two tracks, CCNA Discovery and CCNA Exploration, which address different student segments based on their academic experience and goals. In addition, the Networking Academy’s Cisco Certified Network Professional (CCNP) curriculum has been updated to prepare entry-level and advanced students for careers in enterprise networking.

Longo’s final words to school policy makers? “All STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] skills are important,” he says–but the greatest STEM emphasis in schools today is on science and math.

“Don’t forget about technology and engineering,” he warns.

Links:

Cisco Networking Academy
http://www.cisco.com/web/learning/netacad

Kentucky Prescription for Innovation
http://www.connectkentucky.org/projects/pfi

Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Outlook Handbook
http://www.bls.gov/oco/home.htm

DigiGirlz programs
http://www.microsoft.com/about/diversity/programs/digigirlz.mspx

The International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE)
http://www.iste.org