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?