Where are all the IT Students?

Recently, I spent the morning with President Smatresk, Provost Bowers, four other deans, three faculty, the State Director of Economic Development and six top IT employers from around Las Vegas. The four hour long meeting had to cost more than $10,000 in salaried time.

What brought so many people with impressive titles into one room? The search for IT talent. The State of Nevada has identified the business information technology sector as one of its targets of opportunity for diversifying the Nevada economy. But local employers from Switch Communications to Caesars Entertainment to Zappos tell us they cannot find enough local talent to meet their needs. They recruit IT people from other states and hope they can keep them in Vegas. If Nevada is going to become a haven for segments of the IT industry, the state is going to have to develop more talent, offer incentives for IT professionals to move here, or both

The meeting focused on whether UNLV was graduating the type of students that meet the industry’s needs, how we could get on the forefront of IT education, and how we could graduate more IT students. Currently, UNLV offers degrees in both computer science and management information systems (MIS). The undergraduate programs in computer science and MIS each graduate about 30 students a year, the masters programs about 20 each, for a total of about 100. The numbers are small, but graduates do get jobs, suggesting the programs are meeting some part of the industry’s needs.

Meetings about IT curriculum, student numbers and industry needs make my head hurt. I can never understand exactly what we are talking about. While I consider myself a pretty sophisticated IT user, I have about as much knowledge of how this all works as I do about quantum physics. And while people talk about IT as if it is a single industry with a common set of required skills, I doubt that. So to put the discussion in terms a Michigan boy can understand, I keep saying things like: “If someone came to me and said auto industry professionals are hard to find, I would want to know if these were people who were needed to design the car, assemble the car, sell the car, race the car, service the car, or provide the garage. I wouldn’t offer a single degree program to accomplish all these things. So, which people are we talking about?” Sometimes I get an answer. Mostly I make people irritated. You can imagine what I would engender if I said: “Maybe you just need to pay more?”

That said, we don’t graduate many students in these areas. Curriculum may be part of the problem. The industry people at the meeting all agreed that graduates need to have strong technical skills, a good understanding of business and the ability to communicate with non-technical folks. That is hard to accomplish in just one degree program, especially with the rapid pace of change in this industry. A cutting-edge program would be a source of competitive advantage in both attracting students and helping them get jobs. But the small number of students going into IT programs is an issue at many institutions not just UNLV.

So why aren’t more students choosing IT degrees and careers? Many techies are entrepreneurial spirits who may not like the formality of college. Everyone wants to create the next Google or Facebook and some IT entrepreneurs are at the forefront of the movement to encourage students to skip college and start companies instead. Creating more technology entrepreneurship programs that focus on business start-ups, might draw a different type of student. Yet I doubt that would satisfy industry. They want employees. It is also possible that the IT industry follows the cobweb model whereby demand ebbs and flows quickly and the supply of talent takes longer to adjust to changing wages and job opportunities. If so, we don’t need to spend money on program development, just help students see the emerging opportunities and watch them respond. (Hint: If you are undecided on your career, consider becoming an IT professional: employers are waiting to hire you.) My greatest fear is that we will create a greater variety of IT programs all of which will be sparsely attended: More program cost for the same results. So help me out here: how can we make IT programs more attractive to you? Your thoughts please?

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4 thoughts on “Where are all the IT Students?

  1. My younger brother is an IT professional that never went to college and I sent him this post on facebook and felt he had something interesting and relevant to say here is how he responded:

    I can make these guys feel a little better by telling them this problem isn’t unique to Las Vegas. Nearly every state except California, Washington, and NY are having the same problem. Businesses will pay more for experienced workers, but experienced workers can only exist in places where career opportunities are available.

    The only true way to bring developers into an area like Las Vegas (where even if they found a job, finding a second one would be much harder) is to pay them way more than they’re already being paid.

    If they did want to “make” developers, then they’re going to have to take a hit in terms of skill sets and experience. I can tell you from my own experience that it’s harder to find a job fresh out of college than it is for me to find one as a high school drop, because I have 7 years of work experience.

    I agree with the part about entrepreneurial technology experts, obviously. I think that’s where something like Splitsoft Inc. would come into play. Where you can learn & earn as much or as little as you want. By taking targeted lessons, and finding contract work instead of having to sign your life away to be an “employee” as the article puts it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve taken a job and learned a new skill that I’ve never needed to use again. Developers that spend too much time with one company get outdated pretty quickly.

    *********
    Me again, IT changes more than any subject in a world where everything is changing quicker than it ever has. I don’t think an IT program could ever hang with the changing needs of the industry and the IT type of person simply isn’t “an employee” in the sense that a Marketing graduate would be.

    There’s a whole lot more to say on a subject like this but I’ll my brother’s comment stand for itself.

  2. If I had known about MIS when I transferred to the Lee College of Business, and that a job would be waiting for me upon graduation, then I would have put serious consideration towards it.

    Upon admittance to the college, most business undergrads are only aware of the obvious and well-publicized degree choices: Accounting, finance, management, etc. If students knew about the real-world application of interesting software like Tableau, and the powerful things that they can do with it, then IT could become a more attractive career choice. There are some neat things that can be done with an MIS degree and the job market is ripe for talented graduates. I think it’s a worthy challenge to the academic advisers to see if they can communicate that degree plan to new students.

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