CIOs Must Help Plug the Talent Gap

CIOs have trouble filling technical positions because of deficiencies in America's schools. It's time to get involved, says Gary J. Beach, author of a just-released book on this topic.

"Our Nation is at risk. Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world. The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people."

When do you think those words were written? Many people guess that quote comes from Tom Friedman's 2005 bestseller The World Is Flat. Most are surprised to learn these words were written 30 years ago in "A Nation at Risk," the seminal critique of the American education system written by the Department of Education in 1983.

But why should already-busy CIOs care about the deficiencies of the American school system?

For one thing, it would be nice to work in a more robust economy. A McKinsey study says the GDP of the American economy would be 16 percent higher if our nation's students scored as well on math and science tests as pupils in top-tier countries.

At a more localized level, remember that the education system is what feeds the talent pipeline for corporate IT departments--a pipeline that is drying up.

"One of the most difficult roles I have as a chief information officer is finding and recruiting talent," says Gary King, who until recently was CIO at Chico's, a women's apparel company. "In a growing business, with average turnover rates, I run at a constant talent deficit because I cannot find people with the skills I need to fill the job openings I have.

"If the American education system cannot produce a workforce with the appropriate skills, then these jobs will be filled by global providers. The need to focus on creating career-ready individuals is not an educational imperative. It is an economic imperative," King says.

America is losing the talent race, which hurts its ability to compete with the rest of the world. According to the World Economic Forum's annual competitiveness reports, the U.S. ranked number one among 143 countries in 2007, but fell to number seven this year.

"The vast majority of resumes for my most technical jobs come from graduates of colleges in India and China," says John Halamka, CIO at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. "We are not preparing American students with the skills that high-tech employers deem necessary."

This isn't just about math and science. We also need a way to teach other critical skills: how to think analytically, how to collaborate, how to communicate. At the moment, no country is doing a great job in this area.

If you agree that our nation's economic future--and your IT talent pipeline--is at risk, here are some things you can do:

Push back against the popular notion that IT professionals are nerdy and socially inept. As you well know, today we need IT professionals who have not only technology skills but also communications skills and business savvy. (For more, see " How to Foster a Youth Movement in IT.")

Educate your local schools about the benefits of IT careers. A study by the Stevens Institute of Technology found that most school guidance counselors have no idea what you do for a living.

Consider a second career as a math or science teacher, where you can build the foundation for the next generation of IT professionals.

Our nation is no longer just "at risk." It is headed for the painful consequences of 30 years of procrastination and half-measures in education reform. How painful those consequences will be remains to be seen. But what is certain is this: Every CIO has a professional obligation to get involved in the campaign to improve our nation's education system.

Gary J. Beach, publisher emeritus of CIO magazine, is author of the just-released book The U.S. Technology Skills Gap. Follow him on Twitter:@gbeachcio.

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Read more about it skills in CIO's IT skills Drilldown.

This story, "CIOs Must Help Plug the Talent Gap" was originally published by CIO.

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