CIOs complain college grads aren't ready for IT work

The newly minted college grad comes to your door with a four-year computer science degree and a résumé full of technical acronyms. He knows about simulation and modeling, parallel computation and Internet software development. He's very familiar with Web 2.0 applications and social networking technologies. He has even built a Web site to showcase his talents. Surely, he's every employer's dream entry-level IT staffer, right?

Not exactly, CIOs say. More often than not, there are significant gaps between what even the smartest and most tech-savvy graduates learned in school and what CIOs need from new members of their IT staffs.

What's more is that most companies have neither the time nor the money for on-the-job training. They'd prefer that universities incorporate more training for real-world IT roles into their curricula so that graduates are ready to start contributing their first day on the job.

"The problem is that universities don't train people to take jobs," says Michael Gabriel, CIO at Home Box Office in New York. "If they were better prepared to hit the ground running, they would be a more effective and lower-cost resource that could compete with offshore talent. They wouldn't hit potential constraints imposed by the time and effort required to get them to be productive."

Here's a rundown of some key gaps three CIOs from the insurance, financial services and entertainment industries see between what computer science graduates know and what they need to know to be truly productive and valuable to the business from Day One.

1. Inadequate Grip on Business Realities

Most of the college graduates that Cindy Warkentin talks to have what she considers "unrealistic expectations." "I had one young man tell me that unless I could offer him $75,000 or above, he's not interested. That's way above what's normal for a trainee," says the CIO at Maryland Automobile Insurance Fund in Annapolis.

Pathways to the Real World of IT

More internships for university students majoring in IT -- and a formalized road map of skills and talents required to be successful in different IT jobs -- would go a long way toward closing the gap between university life and the world of work, CIOs say.

HBO CIO Michael Gabriel, for one, is calling on IT executives to step up and contribute to the cause. Among other things, he suggests that IT executives let universities know what skills they're looking for and describe the corresponding jobs that use those skills.

"Academics haven't been in the workplace for a while, so they may not be in tune with what's really needed. You really need CIOs," he says.

Specifically, what's needed is a repository of information that explains various IT career paths and the skills and competencies needed to achieve success, Gabriel says. At HBO, Gabriel has put in place a similar career skills repository so IT staffers can see what they need to know in order to achieve their career goals with the company.

"For every level and every position, we defined the key skills and competencies we believe are necessary for success in that job," Gabriel explains. "We then have training programs, books, classes, mentoring and projects that we put people on to develop those competencies."

CIO Cindy Warkentin says she's working to get more internships approved for the IT department at Maryland Automobile Insurance Fund.

"I think that's where the secret lies," she says. "I would love to get more people some real-world experience, to bring a technology student in and have them contribute to a project."

Warkentin says she too would like to see an "alliance" between business and academia so that students working toward technology degrees would be better prepared to enter the world of work.

One way CIOs can get involved is to sign up as speakers for on-campus career programs or to host on-campus meetings of IT professional associations, such as the Association of Information Technology Professionals or the Society for Information Management, and invite students to attend, says Dave Willmer, executive director of Robert Half Technology, an IT staffing firm in Menlo Park, Calif.

"Inevitably, the talk will turn to jobs and the skills that companies are looking for," he says.

Warkentin says recent grads also seem to think that they'll be able to approach work the same way they approached their studies when they were in school.

A full-time job "is a 9-to-5 commitment, and that really does seem to throw them a bit," she says. "They have a sense that they should be accorded opportunities at work to take long breaks, like the time in between classes."

As for IT skills, Warkentin gives university curricula high marks. "From a technical standpoint, the book learning and the experiences that technology students have is fairly sound. I don't see any huge gaps," she says. "But the university doesn't teach them what it's like to be in the workaday world."

This is exactly the kind of talk that gets Lew Temares of the University of Miami hopping mad.

"Yes, they're missing business experience, but they can't get that from a textbook," says Temares, who is CIO and dean emeritus of the university's school of engineering in Coral Gables, Fla. The best way students can get that experience is for companies to hire them as interns sometime after their sophomore year. But internship opportunities are down, Temares says. "The reason I hear is that companies don't have the people to train the interns. A lot of companies have cut summer internships, but it's a stupid place to cut. If you hire interns upfront, you get the best people in the long run," he says.

Temares says he hires many students to work at the university during their sophomore and junior years. When they graduate, he's willing to offer them full-time jobs, because he knows that they're well versed in his IT organization's technology and culture.

"If you don't take them when they're young and don't offer internships, you have no right to expect anything but book knowledge" when they show up on their first day of a job, he says.

To effectively bridge that skills gap, businesses and universities must form partnerships that bolster the currency of IT education and prepare IT graduates with the "right" business and technology skills, says Ravi Nath, an IT professor and director of the Creighton University College of Business. "Without such university-industry dialogue and partnerships, the disconnect between what industry wants and what graduates offer will remain."

Like Temares, Nath recommends that companies hire computer science students as interns.

"Clearly, no university can be expected to train graduates in every conceivable IT tool, programming language or technology platform," he says. "We have IT internship programs with several local firms where IT students work as interns for an extended period of time with the same business, beginning their junior year. This provides students with invaluable IT work experience, and upon graduation these students are ready to take on challenging IT positions."

Nath says these long-term internship opportunities are a win-win both for the employer and the student. Interns get IT work experience, and the businesses get an opportunity to assess the skills and dispositions of the interns as full-time employees.

2. A Narrow Worldview

As a global real-estate brokerage and consulting firm, Cushman & Wakefield Inc. does business around the world. CIO Craig Cuyar needs and expects IT professionals to be aware of and knowledgeable about cultural differences.

That doesn't necessarily mean that staffers must have experience living or working in a foreign country, he says. "Not everyone can travel, but since we live and work in a global economy, we should expect undergraduate programs to prepare students with a fundamental understanding of the cultural differences, historical perspectives and common business practices employed by all the major countries within it."

Ideally, Cuyar says, "there should be a course in global business practices and cultures. At the very least, there should be a few classes taught on this subject."

Cuyar says he has seen a seemingly small thing like time zone differences throw off new employees. "People need to really understand there's a 12-hour time difference between Hong Kong and the U.S. That's a conference call at 9:30 p.m. versus 9:30 a.m. You can't schedule everything on U.S. time."

Cuyar says that to help new recruits get acquainted with various cultural norms and what it's like to work on multicultural teams, his strategy is to assign new hires to participate on committees that will enable them to develop those skills.

3. Social Networking Skills but Wobbly Relational Skills

Rare is the new college hire who lacks skills involving Facebook, texting or any other form of electronic communication. But face to face, many of these same people have difficulty reading interpersonal signals and communicating, especially in the increasingly multigenerational workplace, says Warkentin. "Most of the gaps I see are on the social, soft skills side," she says.

"The older generation tends to be more structured. They tend to have the expectation that anyone coming into the company will have the exact same experience that they did when they started their career," she says. "They expect a great respect for authority and a willingness to do as they're told." In contrast, "young people expect to receive respect for bringing new ideas."

New ideas are not at all a bad thing, the CIOs agree. Rather, what's needed, they say, is a better understanding of, and respect for, the various sets of values so that new employees are better at working on multigenerational teams.

"What I've seen is that people coming in don't have the necessary skills or understand the fundamentals required to build relationships with senior people," adds Cuyar. "A newly minted college grad is not going to be able to forge relationships with senior people via Facebook or LinkedIn."

4. Lack of Career Focus

To CIOs, it seems as though college grads don't get any advice about how to match their talents and interests with specific IT jobs.

"From what I've seen, universities basically take more of a shotgun approach. They teach [computer science students] a little about a lot of things, but not enough to be effective in a corporate environment," says HBO's Gabriel.

For example, he would like to see colleges help students determine what their strengths are and then match those strengths and ongoing education to specific career roles within IT. "The idea is to build upon people's strengths," he says. "If someone is strong at math and they're analytical, there is a career in IT that leverages that, in business intelligence or data analytics."

Gabriel suggests that university should teach IT skills that cut across all IT careers, and they should offer minor areas of study that focus on certain key skills needed for specific IT jobs. "For example, if you like accounting or finances, you may want to work in financial systems," Gabriel says. "I don't know of any university with a specific focus on the things you need to know for financial systems -- things like process flows, change management, chart of account conversions and project accounting. Universities could help students focus on certain skills and competencies. Students would still have a general IT degree, but it would be geared toward what really interests them."

As it is, Gabriel says, students seem to get little guidance from college career counselors or other university resources about determining where their skills really fit and what types of jobs they could get.

This story, "CIOs complain college grads aren't ready for IT work" was originally published by Computerworld.

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