6 key skills new IT grads are lacking

Greg Taffet is scouting for talent.

The CIO of U.S. Gas & Electric in North Miami Beach recently hired four new staffers and was looking to add 11 more people to his team of 20. His list of open positions included an EDI programmer, a risk management programmer, a CRM programmer, a business analyst and an assistant IT manager.

Taffet says he doubts any new college grad could easily fill any of those roles. Undergraduate and graduate schools aren't able to keep up with the needs of enterprise IT shops, he says.

"It's a horrible thing to say, but there's just not enough time [in college to learn] all the skills that people need to be successful. We are expecting more and more, and universities are supplying more, but we're asking for still more," he says.

What "more" do Taffet and other IT leaders want? They continue to value the "soft skills" -- particularly communication skills, customer service skills and an understanding of how to behave professionally -- that have topped their lists for years. But now they're also looking for specific business and technical skills that recent grads seem to be lacking. Computerworld talked with IT managers and found that there are six key skills they wish their newest hires had picked up in college.

Take notes -- there might be a pop quiz after.

1. Knowledge of Business Basics

Sure, new computer science grads can program, but do they understand accounts receivables, logistics and operations, or marketing plans?

Probably not, says Todd Thibodeaux, president and CEO of the Computing Technology Industry Association (CompTIA), headquartered in Downers Grove, Ill.

That's because most students in computer science undergraduate programs still do the majority of their coursework within that field -- even though many end up in corporate IT positions where they're expected to develop applications to facilitate the work done by other departments. And while graduate-level IT programs do a better job of offering business-related courses, there can still be a knowledge gap.

Colleges are starting to address the problem, says Brian Janz, an MIS professor at the University of Memphis's Fogelman College of Business and Economics and associate director of the university's FedEx Center for Supply Chain Management.

The university is in its second year of following the IS 2010 model curriculum designed by the Association for Information Systems and the Association for Computing Machinery. That plan calls for teaching tech students both IT skills and professional skills such as communication and leadership.

The switch has brought more business studies into the MIS coursework, Janz says. "There are always going to be gaps that are going to be very specific to the hiring organization, but we can make sure the foundation is there," he says. "If we can give them the sound foundation, [businesses] can give them the stuff specific to their organization."

Traits IT managers love

While it's true that IT managers are dismayed that new tech grads lack certain skills, overall they agree that this new generation is tech-savvy, hard-working and willing to learn.

Todd Thibodeaux, president and CEO of CompTIA, says he hears from colleagues that the latest graduates are energetic, creative and eager to contribute.

"I'm not sure that was always the case," he says. "Twenty years ago, there was more of a command-and-control environment. People didn't volunteer themselves or jump into projects as much. The kids today like variety, and they have the energy, creativity and good nature that comes along with that."

IT executives also say their latest college hires have an intuitive sense of technology -- in particular, an understanding of social networking and ideas on how to apply it to enhance business performance.

"Often they have great insights as to what ought to be tried or to what might work," says John N. Oglesby, an IT executive in Tennessee and a founding member of the Memphis chapter of the Society for Information Management. "They bring a completely new outside perspective, and that's typically where innovation comes from."

-- Mary K. Pratt

In the meantime, IT leaders have developed strategies to ensure their new employees have basic business acumen. Taffet, for example, looks for recent grads with some previous work experience -- and a corresponding understanding of how a business operates -- but other employers often snap up those candidates quickly.

For those new hires who don't have sufficient business knowledge, particularly in the area of finance, Taffet teaches what he calls "Finance 101" -- a series of informal lessons on basic business accounting concepts like accounts receivable and accounts payable.

"It's less glamorous than a lot of the new things that are being taught, but it's just as important that an employee understand [the business functions] that all companies have," he explains.

2. Experience With Systems Integration

There's no denying that college students, regardless of their major, get plenty of computer experience. But that doesn't mean they're schooled in the IT processes that businesses use, says Thibodeaux.

Most computer science students spend a majority of their time in college learning how to build their own applications and systems, he points out, even though businesses often don't necessarily need that type of expertise.

"When you get into the business world, it's a lot less about having to create your own system and more about how to integrate systems," Thibodeaux says.

People who can build systems from scratch may have impressive talents, he explains, but many companies find more value in those who can integrate multiple enterprise applications and commercial packages or can take a function created internally and integrate it into an established system.

To compensate for this skills gap, many corporate IT departments choose to train new hires themselves, he says. Large companies tend to engage consultants to aid in the process, while small and midsize companies find ways to train people directly.

3. Emerging Technologies Expertise

Business intelligence (BI) and cloud computing are two emerging tech trends that are high priorities to enterprise IT managers, but those topics haven't trickled down into college curricula yet.

Colleges can offer only so many courses, and with technologies changing so rapidly, there tends to be some lag time when it comes to developing extensive coursework in evolving trends, says Marty Sylvester, senior vice president of Modis, an IT staffing firm in Harrisburg, Pa.

Sylvester says he regularly hears from CIOs who say how hard it is to find young people trained in emerging enterprise technologies, particularly cloud computing.

Some companies offer crash courses to get new hires up to speed. One employer that takes that approach is Pariveda Solutions, a Dallas-based IT consultancy. CEO Bruce Ballengee says Pariveda generally hires recent grads who hold bachelor's degrees in MIS or computer science and then starts them off with a week of "developer school" to familiarize them with emerging technologies they may not have studied in college, such as cloud computing and BI, as well as in-demand enterprise programming languages like SQL, .Net and Java.

4. The Tech Basics

As IT becomes increasingly advanced, Jeff Bowden has seen a decline in the ability of college graduates to handle simple tech tasks. "One gap we're finding is that colleges don't teach the real basic basics," says Bowden, director of IT systems at Dassault Systemes, a software vendor in Auburn Hills, Mich.

Bowden needs new hires who have basic tech skills -- they have to know their way around a command prompt, understand batch scripting or know how to fix a PC when it's not responding to input from the mouse.

"When you started 20 years ago, you were forced to learn this, but as computers evolved, people ignored this basic stuff," he says. "Yet there can be a strong need for it when you're troubleshooting computers" -- a task that's often part of an entry-level IT job.

Bowden says he often leaves his new hires to figure out what to do on their own when faced with basic tech problems. "Our preference is getting them to learn how to do it -- Googling it and so on. Then it's something they own. Once you have [hands-on experience] a few times, then you know the technology," he says, adding that he sometimes asks more senior staffers to teach new hires if time is short.

5. Familiarity With Legacy Systems

Modis's Sylvester says businesses are still looking for people who can work on legacy systems. They want workers who know Cobol, Customer Information Control System (CICS) and other mainframe skills. But colleges aren't teaching those subjects anymore, Sylvester says.

"There's a real concern that some of the mainframe skills that companies will be losing as the baby boomers retire aren't being taught in the universities," says Jerry Luftman, executive director and distinguished professor at the School of Technology Management at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J. He says some companies now ask vendors of legacy systems to help train new hires.

Luftman and Sylvester both say that companies are trying to find college grads who are willing to learn older technologies, but that's no easy task. They say some employers are trying to persuade young people to learn mainframe skills by pointing out that they'll be doubly marketable if they're up on both the latest technologies and legacy systems.

"The skills to support legacy systems are marketable to many large organizations -- corporations, government, service providers," Luftman says, although recent grads "might not always see the bigger picture or long-term opportunity at such a young age."

6. The Ability to Work on a Team

This might come as a surprise, but IT leaders report that the generation that spends so much time on Facebook, Twitter and other online communities isn't particularly skilled at collaborating with others in the workplace.

"As much as we'd like to think that this generation is all about social media, working together continues to be a significant challenge," Thibodeaux says, noting that this weakness is particularly prevalent among computer science majors who spent a lot of time in college working on projects alone. "A lot of them don't know how to work together effectively or set and manage expectations. That's not being taught very well in colleges or graduate schools."

James T. Brown, president of consulting and training firm SEBA Solutions in Viera, Fla., says some colleges are trying to address that deficiency by assigning homework to teams rather than individual students. Unfortunately, this approach isn't always successful because the teams often just break the assignments into pieces that individuals complete on their own.

Brown says only a handful of companies offer employees robust leadership and team-building training programs -- and they're the ones that recognize that they get the most value out of employees who work well with others.

This story, "6 key skills new IT grads are lacking" was originally published by Computerworld.

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