Inspiring Success

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March 3, 2015

Drawing In Instead of Weeding Out

By Charles Eaton

Charles Eaton
“If you’re not a high achiever in math, then you should not take our computer science classes,” said a high school teacher to an auditorium full of parents of rising freshmen. You could almost hear the collective sigh of a nation of IT employers as their talent pool shrunk.

Last month, one of my team members was one of those parents in that auditorium, and she heard about new course offerings at her daughter’s elite public high school. The school is one of the best in Virginia and typically is in the top 100 public high schools in the nation. The school had added optional computer science classes to the math curriculum about three years ago.

But as the teacher described his classes to the parents, he said students need to be in honors math classes to enroll in the computer science classes and that the curriculum only focused on programming. The classes were structured to help students get into four-year tech-focused universities. When probed about more general classes in computers or matching curriculum to current IT industry needs or certifications, the teacher apologized and said those weren’t available at the school.

I’m sure this is a pretty common story around the country. In high schools that gear the majority of their students for four-year colleges, computer science classes are often focused solely on computational thinking and object-oriented programming. These are typically the only IT and tech offerings on the schedule. Yet software development and engineering jobs are just a portion of the 6.8-million tech occupations in the U.S.

A portion of the other tech occupations find some high school prep through Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs, today’s version of vocational tech. Those programs are usually in schools where a lower proportion of the student body is expected to attend college. As a nation worried about filling the IT skills gap, shouldn’t we give all young people an opportunity to explore the wide variety of tech careers without being discouraged or tracked along just one possible IT career path?

Tech education at the secondary school level should be drawing in new participants not weeding out potential technologists. A greater variety of tech class offerings is one step, but we also need to dispel the myths that continue to float around tech careers. In our recent Study of Teen Views on Tech Careers, we found that teens and their parents still think that they have to be good in math and science to achieve careers in IT and that a four-year college degree is a necessity.

The Creating IT Futures Foundation, CompTIA and other IT organizations have long maintained that a four-year degree, while potentially beneficial in the long run, is not the only way to get started in an IT career. A student also doesn’t have to be a top achiever in math and science to be successful in IT. Instead we recommend that teens and parents explore IT training options after high school graduation at two-year-degree institutions and non-profit or for-profit training programs as well as on-the-job training opportunities with local employers. Teens also should become familiar with IT certifications offered by CompTIA, Cisco, Microsoft and other certifying bodies. Several of those certifications are achievable while in high school.

Based on the survey results, we recommend that educators and school counselors:
  1. Rethink their marketing of tech careers to teens.
  2. Develop and promote hands-on tech programs.
  3. Help parents provide career guidance.
  4. Clarify what IT means so that teens understand the diverse options available in technology.
When it comes to marketing tech careers to girls, our survey found that girls were more likely than boys to learn about specific jobs or what they might be good at through their friends or through web browsing; view IT as sitting alone in front of a computer all day; and more likely to say that they would struggle with IT or to state that they are just not interested in computers or technology.

However, when these same girls were told more about what an IT job really encompasses, they were as likely as any other demographic group to be interested in IT, especially if IT training could help them earn school credits and get them into college.

We need to show teens, and girls in particular, that IT is not just for the kids geeking out on technology. IT needs a diverse and large workforce, who are problem solvers and critical thinkers and who show empathy for the people problems they are solving. Messages and curriculum like the ones at the Virginia high school mentioned above are not going to get us there.

If you want to get more involved in sending the right career messages to teens, parents and schools, join CompTIA’s Dream IT program. Educate yourself on what teens think by downloading a copy of our survey. Spread the word about what an IT career really looks like by sharing our Test Drive an IT Career video series. Together, we can move beyond the stereotypes of what a technologist is and does.