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Teaching teen techies

Corporations are helping take responsibility for educating the next generation of IT workers.

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Companies struggling to fill technology-related positions might do well to open a recruiting office in Greeneville High School. That's because the Tennessee town's current middle school students likely will have been exposed to an astounding amount of technology education by the time they begin graduating in 2005.


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Greeneville High School is the first school in the state to host a Cisco Networking Academy, in which students learn the basics of network installation and repair in a yearlong online course. But they start even younger than that in Greeneville. Just a few weeks ago, kids at Greeneville Middle School were greeted by a sleek, new $90,000 diversified technology lab where they can study everything from robotics to computer-aided design during a nine-week course.

Meanwhile, another high school group is helping to build a bilingual Web page for a local lawn furniture manufacturer. And a rotating group of middle school students performs research on the Web each morning to prepare for a daily newscast televised within the school.

"We live in an industry-rich area in Tennessee where there are lots of huge manufacturing facilities," says Beverly Miller, director of technology systems for the Greeneville school system in northeast Tennessee. "We are really doing our children an injustice in public education if we don't prepare them for this technological world."

The Information Technology Association of America says that this year alone, 850,000 technology-based jobs will go unfilled. Five years from now that figure is expected to be well above one million. Faced with numbers like that, corporations increasingly are creating partnerships with community colleges, secondary schools and even elementary schools. Through a variety of programs, they are hoping to increase student exposure to technology careers and provide job-specific training for a host of positions.

Package delivery giant Federal Express this summer hosted one-day technology camps for middle school students at four of its data centers. Students participated in an Internet scavenger hunt, designed Web pages and completed team-building exercises. Jim Wallace, FedEx's manager of services recruitment in Memphis, Tenn., says the goal of the first-year program was to boost interest in technology by exposing students to experiences they may not get at home.

home.

"If we had 150 kids in the summer camps, that probably doesn't translate into 150 people working at FedEx in eight years," he acknowledges. "But if it interests them in technology, that can only be a good thing."

Wallace says FedEx wants to expand the program to several more cities in the U.S. and overseas, boosting the total number of participants in several related programs to 500 next year and expanding the camps to include elementary school students.

Taking a wider approach, Intel hopes to establish a network of 100 Computer Clubhouses around the world to proliferate technology education among students between the ages of 8 and 18. Originally pioneered by the Boston Museum of Science and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the clubhouse model encourages participants to be creative with technology, whether they are making computer-generated art, developing Web pages or designing animations, according to Miguel Salinas, a spokesman for Intel.

So far, Cisco appears to lead the way in education. The San Jose vendor has already taught more than 21,000 students through its networking academies, which exist in 3,432 locations scattered through 60 countries. Cisco has spent more than $50 million on programs to educate the next generation of workers, money that includes $1.37 million to wire 10 of the nation's poorest school districts.

Carlos Fraga, 27, was studying computer science part-time at the Borough of Manhattan Community College in New York late last year when he heard about a Cisco Networking Academy program being offered there. Not only was the program free for the cash-strapped U.S. Navy veteran, but it also offered the kind of hands-on training in building and maintaining networks that he needed.

The six-month program included a three-month internship at the brokerage house Salomon Smith Barney, where he got plenty of experience in building out networks.

"When the company would acquire new sites, we would configure the networks and test them in a preproduction environment before handing them off to operations," Fraga says.

He graduated from the program in July and almost simultaneously completed the exam to become a Cisco Certified Network Associate. He then took a job as a network consultant with Chase Securities in Manhattan, one of several companies that immediately offered him a post.

Back in Greeneville, Miller estimates that Cisco contributed $25,000 to the laboratory at Greeneville High School, where the academy is held. That money quickly paid dividends when Miller hired two academy graduates to maintain the school's computer network during the summer.

"These fellas really get in and get their hands dirty," Miller says of the course. "They crimp cable and test cable. It's really practical stuff."

Adam Chandley, now a high school senior, is one of those students who learned to program routers. But he found his summer job with the school system a bit less exciting.

"It ranged from upgrading Novell servers to installing clients to running new cables all over the place, to cleaning out computers," Chandley says. "That's glamorous work."

Still, Chandley says he'd like to make a career in the network field some day. "I know it's going to be technology-related and deal with networks, but as for what exactly I'll do, I'm still not sure," he says.

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Duffy is a freelance writer in Haydenville, Mass. He can be reached at tduffy62@rcn.com.

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