Commission Readies Worker Findings

Commission Readies Worker Findings

Carl Kelly

By Marianne Dunn, Staff Writer

Gov. James Gilmore's Commission on Information Technology will make its long-awaited recommendations Sept. 1 about ways educators, industry leaders and government officials can work together more effectively to alleviate the information technology worker shortage, industry and government officials said last week.

"Nobody escapes," said Fred Williamson, Virginia's assistant secretary of technology. "We found that there are things that all three groups need to do differently and do better."

The planned open meeting at George Mason University's Concert Hall in Fairfax, Va., will focus on the latest report from the 39-member commission, which was created by Gilmore in May 1998 to explore key issues, including information technology as an economic development tool and work force training. The commission's earlier report tackled Internet policy.

"There are no silver bullets that will solve the technology work force dilemma in Virginia," Don Upson, secretary of technology and commission chairman, told Washington Technology. "Even if the education and training providers could magically produce 30,000 fully trained, new IT workers tomorrow, companies really want experienced workers."

Upson said the issue really becomes one of "how we can produce new workers with not only technical skills, but workplace skills as well."

The 15 or more recommendations in the report cover a tax credit and other incentive programs, as well as ways to consolidate myriad government-funded training programs.

The commission also will address ways for industry and academia to work with the Virginia congressional delegation to monitor federal contracting requirements that contain provisions that are not in line with the commercial information technology marketplace, said Caroline Boyd, special assistant to the secretary of technology.

"This is critical because of the large impact the federal marketplace has on Virginia IT companies," she said.

The upcoming meeting's objective is "to address a national problem and also a problem in Virginia: supplying additional people so the industry can continue to grow," Gilmore told Washington Technology during a recent interview at the National Governors' Association summer meeting in St. Louis. "We would like to learn the best ways to do that, whether we focus our attention on the high schools, on the community colleges, or specialized programs."

Todd Stottlemyer, vice chairman of the commission and executive vice president and chief financial officer of BTG Inc., said colleges and universities should establish information technology courses as a requirement for graduation. He noted that George Mason requires students to take classes that expose them to technology.

"Just like in high school, English and physical education are required courses. Universities and colleges need to raise the technology quotient, regardless of major," he said. "The long-term answer has to be in education."

Commission member Carl Kelly, senior vice president and general manager for Oracle Service Industries' higher education division, said work force initiatives should be targeted at a broader group of students, not just those majoring in information technology.

In fact, students enrolled in liberal arts programs often possess the creativity and critical thinking skills that employers want, he said. The problem is that many of these students do not enroll in technology classes because they do not see how IT skills will be useful in their careers. When they graduate, they lack the basic computer skills.

"If you just give them some basic information technology knowledge, they are the perfect workers for much of the IT need today," he said.

The commission will recommend that educational institutions work more closely with local businesses to determine what skills they expect employees to have, and then use that information to develop the curriculum.

Kelly suggested companies establish internships with nearby colleges and universities, then reimburse tuition to students who stay with the company after graduation.

"We have got to give these people some way to apply what they are learning," he said. Like traditional internships, the students would work for the employer during school. The twist: If the intern takes a full-time job with the sponsor after graduation, the company would reimburse the student's tuition.

"What [the employer] would be getting is a trained employee," Kelly said.

Williamson suggested companies look within their organizations for IT employees. Instead of spending money and time recruiting new employees, they could focus attention on retaining staff. One strategy, he said, would be making an investment in continuing education.

"A lot of businesses are not paying enough attention to their employee career development," he said. "Employees do not feel attached to the company, so they move on as new challenges present themselves."

Williamson did not offer any specific strategies that employers might adopt, but rather offered an observation that high-tech companies should consider.

"A lot of this, business has to do itself," said Williamson. "The government cannot wave a magic wand and make it work right."

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