Inspiring Success

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December 16, 2015

Developing Tech Talent Is a Global Problem

By Charles Eaton

What struck me most during a recent business trip to the Middle East? Employers and governments in that region are dealing with the same problem we’re having in the U.S. – how to get more young people into tech careers.

Last month, I travelled to the Middle East with CompTIA’s CEO Todd Thibodeaux and the CompTIA certification sales team responsible for that region. We visited the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Qatar. We met with the various ministries of education, training and defense, as well as universities, private companies and training providers. The circumstances of the problem in those Gulf Coast countries are a little bit different than we are encountering in the U.S., but the result is the same – IT occupations in much of the world have a real image problem.

The countries we visited all have enormous ex-patriate populations. In the UAE and Qatar, those ex-pat populations are several factors larger than the local citizenry. Ex-pats are employed in jobs that run the gamut from low-level service and construction jobs to high-level IT and financial occupations. Out of concern for long-term national security and stability issues, all of the governments want to see more of their citizens in those higher-level jobs. But first they have to get young people interested in those jobs.

We met one young woman who was working to highlight the role of tech jobs for women in the Arab world. She said all of her friends scoff at a tech job as being boring and sitting behind a desk, unless you mention one of the few brand name tech companies such as Apple, Google or Facebook. Then they admit, they all would like to create the next big app or service.

What’s fueling these misperceptions of IT occupations? Based on our research into U.S. youth perceptions of tech careers, we can point the finger at a number of things:
  1. The myth that you have to be good at science and math;
  2. The myth that you have to get a four-year college degree;
  3. The high value in the media placed on coding but little attention paid to all the other jobs in tech; and
  4. The lack of opportunities for young people to experience a tech occupation.
Movies and TV shows are especially bad at portraying tech workers; they tend to be either hackers or nerds. Mr. Robot, a terrific new show that premiered last summer on the USA Network, was an exception, with probably the most accurate examples of cybersecurity I’ve seen on screen. Unfortunately, it wasn’t exactly an inspirational tale that would drive a young person into a tech career. But it’s good, so stream it if you can.

Those perception challenges are big ones, and in our own way at Creating IT Futures and CompTIA, we hope to make big strides in 2016 to reduce those challenges and drive more young people to focus on a potential tech career.

First, we’ll be continuing to advocate for new models for internships documented in our /researching-solutions/internship-models">4Ps that we released this year. Employers and schools can collaborate to innovate the internship model so that it works for both the student and the employer, as long as the internship involves a project, place, personnel and payment. We know that we can move more people along the IT career pathway if they first experience a job hands-on and make money while they’re doing it.

Second, we’ll be working on IT apprenticeships, which are becoming a strong component of the U.K. workforce system but are not that prevalent in the U.S. Our first effort will kick off soon in Boulder, Colo., with Techtonic.

Third, CompTIA will be working on ways to show that tech careers cross into any industry that a young person may have an interest in. Be it music, sports, fashion, healthcare, law, military, or other field, we want to show just how a tech career fits into those worlds. Think about the young basketball fan who might not make it to the NBA or WNBA but could work for an NBA franchise analyzing all the player tracking data and helping the coaches design better offensive and defensive schemes.

Fourth, we’re exploring ways to use pop culture and Hollywood to drive IT image changes. We have some big ideas that might never come to light, but we won’t stop exploring and experimenting.

Finally, we’re working on a guide for parents to help them encourage their kids toward a tech career. Many resources could be built from the content we will produce for parents.

If the past five years of my tenure at Creating IT Futures were about building good programs and establishing our thought leadership in IT workforce development, the next five are going to be about impacting more people with our work and affecting cultural changes about the value of tech careers and vocational training. I look forward to reporting our progress and announcing new initiatives in the coming year.