Education changes to meet needs

PHOTO/Ed Bennett/For the Journal
kenworthy.jpg What skills do Alaska’s knowledge workers need today?

A recent survey and conference highlight some surprising and unsurprising results.

Three years ago Steve Smith, the University of Alaska’s chief information officer, and I hosted a series of meetings with leading information technology employers in the state, seeking to document the war for talent. The groups’ conclusion was that Alaska had a shortage of higher end IT talent and certified technicians to maintain computer systems.

Just as important were what are termed the "soft skills" of communication ability, business savvy and ready-to-work skills that employers look for before they would dare put a new employee near a client.

The simple three-page estimate of Alaska supply and demand for different job functions and competencies led to the Alaska Science and Technology Foundation instigating an IT Fellows program run by the Alaska High-Tech Business Council. The cost of training and certification of 40 fellows has been shared by ASTF and employers. It involved young people and mid-career people going to work and school as part of a defined plan to upgrade technical certifications and soft skills.

Ruth DeCamp of the Anchorage & Mat-Su Workforce Investment Board then took the skill grid and created a wider partnership including the Alaska High-Tech Business Council’s IT Careers Consortium and Matanuska-Susitna College to win a federal $2.3 million training grant to turn out more technicians and upgrade the skills of professionals already in technology careers.

So educators, trainers and employers have become better connected. A report resulted that outlines how the various UAA colleges can better coordinate computer and Internet-related courses so students receive a better-integrated and more relevant education. Some of UAF’s excellent computer science graduates now stay in the state to work with start-up technology firms.

Charter College now has a four-year degree program. AVTEC, UA regional campuses and private training companies like CompuCom and NBS expanded their offerings.

So where are we today?

One result of all those efforts is that the acute shortage of computer technicians with Microsoft MCSE, Novell and similar certifications has abated significantly.

For the higher-skilled IT occupations, demand still outpaces supply and in some cases has shifted. According to surveys and the recent "Our Workforce, Our Future" IT Symposium, there are still not enough skilled programmers who know computer languages.

There appears to be more need for skilled network system designers and administrators as well as those familiar with maintaining network security. Skilled Web-site developers with a good handle on Internet applications and some marketing know-how increasingly can write their ticket as can proficient software programmers and developers.

In the world of soft skills, the need for project management competency has become an employer buzzword. That means having good business sense, the ability to manage budgets and people, and understanding the business from the client’s point of view.

One consistent employer message is that while colleges may believe in degrees, employers value technical certifications just as highly. But certifications alone do not guarantee getting and holding a job.

The high end of information technology is now converging with advanced business or manufacturing systems. All those fields depend on real time data acquisition, ways to monitor quality systems, and benchmarking both production and economic information. Both types of information are needed to assure quality and cost efficiency, as well as the ability to respond to changing market conditions.

I suspect that if the information technology industry keeps an eye on how to integrate the data piece with best business and manufacturing practices, educators will not be beaching their graduates’ careers on isolated skill islands.

Rural Alaska remains a special challenge. Computer systems in local health clinics, telecommunication sites and schools are too often maintained and upgraded by expensively flown-in technicians. With stepped up training, more local residents can hold those jobs. Hopefully, the now-threatened Regulatory Commission of Alaska will survive to put in place this year a program using existing federal funds for a training effort to increase IT capabilities in off-road Alaska.

Leading employers and educators will be meeting soon to revisit our past work and collectively construct a road map of future skill needs.

Do I believe that our existing training and education institutions can pause to rest? No, further responsiveness by educators to the changing world of work is necessary, but we have made progress.

Have we made enough progress? Probably not. In terms of growing the larger tech sector that Alaska needs, we now can see where we have to go, but we are still not there.

Jamie Kenworthy is executive director of the Alaska Science and Technology Foundation. He can be reached at ([email protected]).

06/09/2002 - 8:00pm