How to Build the Next Generation of IT Professionals

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In American schools, the need to encourage the next generation of IT professionals is clear. The economic power of the United States is built on the quality of education that its students receive. Statistics clearly indicate that the level of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education being offered in the United States today fails to meet the growing need for a new generation of science and technology professionals.

Reports show that the problem is not getting students interested in STEM jobs, it’s keeping them interested. While about 28 percent of high-school freshman will express an interest in STEM studies every year—that’s one million students out of every freshman class—57 percent of those students will have lost interest in STEM by the time they leave high school. Clearly, these numbers are unsustainable for a technology-based economy where:

  1. 1.7 million new cloud computing jobs will be created in North America alone (2011-2015).
  2. Mobile application development has led to the creation of over 300,000 new jobs.

In order to encourage higher levels of STEM participation at the college level, something needs to be done to keep students interested in science and IT careers at earlier ages. By the time a student reaches a college campus, it is often too late to plant an idea for a new career field in his or her mind. Introducing students to greater levels of STEM education at the K-12 level, along with enrichment programs that provide these students access to hands-on experience working in the field, can be essential to making sure that tomorrow’s American IT companies have the pool of talent from which they’ll need to draw in order to be successful.

In many ways, the lack of qualified IT professionals being produced by American schools today is a social problem as much as it is a technological one; the problem of STEM education is especially pronounced among females and minorities.

So, when whole groups of society are unlikely to even consider a STEM career field, what is to be done to address the situation? The problem needs to be addressed at the source, using creativity and innovation to find new ways to get young students — particularly women and minorities — interested in STEM careers. In many cases, the solution may be as simple as giving students a chance to gain hands-on experience using science and technology in a career-like setting. Just giving students the opportunity to see what they are capable of could be enough to start them down a new career path they might never have considered otherwise.

There are two stakeholders that can help drive greater participation in STEM careers: schools and potential employers.

The schools

Schools have an important role to play in encouraging students to consider STEM careers. Whether underfunded or not, since technology is an omnipresent part of life today, schools must find a way to incorporate it into their curricula.

A tool schools can use is teaching math and science courses from a practical perspective. The age-old question of “why do we have to learn this?” can turn many students off of math and science, since they are often unable to see the benefits of theoretical study at such an early age. If schools can incorporate math and science into possible career fields, such as using construction to teach geometry, students might be more likely to see math and science education as a worthwhile use of their time and therefore persue those fields in higher learning.

The potential employers

Companies in science and technology fields can work together with schools to fill the gaps where schools can’t reach students, and they have a vested interest to do so; investing time and resources in the students of today could lead to a more experienced, connected, and engaged workforce tomorrow.

Potential employers can provide enrichment programs that give students the practical experience that their schools may be unable or unwilling to provide. Many of the big names in IT are already pursuing this approach. Google has donated funds to establish a student-run data center at a high school in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Facebook donated some of its used servers to a high school in Prineville, Oregon, which lead to the establishment of a computer technology club where students can get hands-on experience working on the servers.

Potential employers are also able to provide mentors for young students. This is especially important for women and minorities who may have no STEM role models in their own lives.

In the end, STEM education is a complicated problem that won’t be solved with a simple fix. It will take the combined efforts of educators, industry leaders, community leaders, and parents to get kids excited and interested in STEM careers. The efforts of companies like Facebook and Google show that we’re slowly moving in the right direction.

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