Since 2005, when the Society for Information Management (SIM) published a paper called “Trends and Implications for the IT Workforce,” the organization of IT executives and thought leaders has been encouraging a renaissance in IT interest and recruitment to grow and replenish its ranks. Originally targeted at college students, the program revisited at this year’s SIM conference in Dallas took a more urgent and inclusive tone that has expanded to include younger students and more activities. Michael Brooks, SIM’s director of community outreach and STEM initiatives (he's also regional account executive at professional staffing and solutions provider Kforce), discussed the new effort with Information Management.

Information Management: How have you expanded the reach and approach of FPIT this year?

Originally our mission was to go out to college campuses and introduce the profession, if you will, to kids and see if we could attract them to courses and majors in computer information systems or a related technology major. That had some success but our chapters across the nation became interested in the importance of educating the whole spectrum of K through 16 plus. Some chapters already had efforts under way with Year Up or with teen tech camps. Lately the attention has turned to primarily middle school and up to the part of SIM’s mission to which is to promote careers in information technology.

Have IT careers had proper exposure in all the talk about STEM initiatives and training?

In STEM initiatives across the country, and certainly here in Massachusetts, when most people in the STEM community talk about the “T” or technology, they don’t necessarily have information technology in mind. They think about things like technology products and robotics and things of that nature. In our own Boston chapter, we’ve been engaging with the governor’s council on STEM initiatives and the people that manage that, and helping them recognize that just about every business in the U.S. today depends on information technology to run. At our national conference in Dallas we subtitled our talk, ”Putting the ‘C’ in STEM,” with the C standing for computers. Here in Boston I’d found it remarkable how once we made educators and politicians aware of the potential of information technology as an employment opportunity for STEM kids, they were open to meeting and talking to us. It didn’t really occur to them they should be focused on IT. It was surprising and of course we to close that perception gap.

Even at the college level, many of the academics can seem out of step with the current workforce demands.

I found the same thing at another STEM summit here in Boston where we were working with a number of educators. It was discouraging to hear from them that they were running the same IT or IS programs that they were running 20 or 30 years ago. Many of them even recognize the problem and they’re struggling a bit on what they should be teaching kids as they put them through programs. They seem to focus a lot on what programming skills they should be teaching.

What should they be focused on?

I think if we did them any favors at all it would be to communicate that that’s a temporary thing and that by the time a freshman graduates from college the programming may not even be valid because the technology moves that much faster. Our message is that they should be teaching critical thinking skills: how to look at a business problem, how to dissect that problem and then how to apply technology to the solution of that problem. We can teach them how to program once we get them.

If you get interested kids involved and evolving skills throughout their education, will you be in a better place to enter the workforce?

In terms of FPIT, we recognize we need to get more involved in what kids are being presented in the classroom in terms of skills that take them to technical training or directly into a job. We also recognize we need to do more for earlier grades and engage young people in 5th and 6th grade and get them interested in a career in information technology. Part of that has to be helping guidance counselors understand careers. Right now they don’t seem to be doing much to steer kids in our direction.

How are SIM chapters involved?

SIM is a federation of chapters that typically work from the ground up. We’re not the kind of organization that from the national level says to chapters, this is what you’ll do. So we’re seeking to encourage current activities and increase the dialogue between chapters using chapter activities as an incubator to identify programs that are successful and might be adopted nationally. We’re in dozens of major metropolitan areas and if we can develop programs that work and apply them across all of our chapters it gives a chance to have a potentially national impact. We’re also in the process of putting up some pages on our SIMNET site dedicated to STEM initiatives that are still rough but getting worked out. We’re putting up a LinkedIn subgroup to our SIM Connect group and we are in the process of inviting people with an interest in STEM to join the dialogue there and we’ll begin to use our pull at the edges of the organization to apply at the national level.

FPIT seems like a great area for a group like SIM to take the initiative.

We have our work to do just like a lot of other organizations working in STEM areas are doing around the country. The first President Bush talked about a thousand points of light. We’ve got that kind of thing in STEM and here in Massachusetts there are a thousand programs going on and initiatives in every city, town and school system. That’s the good news but also the bad news because it’s not yet being scaled statewide and none of the programs across the state are being scaled on a national basis. We’ve got the same thing going on at SIM, all kinds of related programs and we need to identify the points of light with the potential to scale nationally.

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