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Less College, More Computer Training

The growing mismatch of skills and well-paying jobs by William R. Beaver

Over the past two decades the major thrust of American public education has focused on preparing students for college. These efforts seem to have paid off. About 70 percent of high school graduates attend college today, according to the Education Trust, and forecasters indicate these numbers will climb higher.

Although the conventional wisdom would suggest that all this bodes well for the new economy and the information age, such is unlikely to be the case. Why? Put simply, too many students are being channeled into career fields that are not now and probably will not be in demand in the new economy.

As Andrew Grove, chairman of Intel, quipped, "Our educational system is not producing the right numbers." If a change in course is not made in public education, both the economy and students will suffer.

Mismatch of Fields

Part of the current misallocation of educational resources is not just the fact that so many students attend college but that only slightly more than half will graduate within six years. This suggests that for many students a lot of time and money are being wasted that could be better applied elsewhere.

Adding to the problem is that too many college graduates major in subjects that are not likely to be of great value in the coming years. As the Hudson Institute's recent report, "Workforce 2020," stated: "Generic degrees are not in demand." This is particularly true for students majoring in the liberal arts and the humanities.

The problem was highlighted recently by the introduction of an exam called tek.xam. The exam is designed for liberal arts majors who need to demonstrate their computer skills to potential employers. One would think it would make more sense to simply encourage these students to major in computers and informational technology where finding well-paid jobs is not difficult and the demand for employees with technological literacy will only increase.

Consider the need for systems analysts. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that by 2006 there will be 1.9 million jobs for systems analysts—about double the current number. Yet universities nationwide graduate only 25,000 systems analysts a year. It is not just systems analysts who are in demand. The Information Technology Association of America estimated 1.6 million jobs in its field would be available by 2000, but only half would be filled because of limited supply. Thus, even if significantly more college students major in computers and related areas, it will not meet the demand.

Exacerbating the matter is that the number of students majoring in computer science has actually declined in the last decade. Clearly, this suggests all will not be smooth sailing in the new economy. As Harris Miller, president of the ITAA, put it in an interview with The Wall Street Journal, "The nation's economic future is tied to the availability of appropriately skilled workers." At the same time, the shortage of high-tech workers also presents a significant opportunity for public education.

Skill Deficiencies

To take advantage of the situation, schools must begin to prepare students for jobs in the new economy. Schools first must identify those students with interests in technology and then make them aware of the excellent available job opportunities that in many instances don't require a four-year college degree.

This should not be that difficult because the current generation has grown up with computers and many students already have some inclination, if not a passion, for them.

School counselors also need to convey to students that in the new economy skills will be more important than credentials and that success will not always require a college degree. Many students likely will find such alternatives attractive.

Studies show that the majority of students attending college do so not to be intellectually uplifted but to enhance their employment opportunities. This is not to say that counselors should discourage college attendance. Indeed, those students with the motivation and aptitude should be encouraged to go on. But the interests of many students, as well as the new economy, would be better served if these options are made known and become available.

In this regard, there is good news and bad news for the schools. The good news is that schools across the country have made considerable investments in information technology. For example, about 95 percent of all schools now are connected to the Internet, according to a recent account in The New York Times. The bad news is that schools don't always make the best use of what they have. "We are seeing a lot of schools where they have the equipment, and very frequently it's either underused or not used at all," says Vicki Rafel, National PTA vice president. Much of the problem can be traced to the fact that teachers lack computer skills. A study conducted by Market Data Retrieval found that when it comes to computers, 61 percent of the teachers surveyed report being inadequately prepared.

To address the problem, the Clinton administration awarded $75 million in grants to teachers' colleges to train new teachers in information technology. The situation also will be helped by the many young teachers who will enter the field with much better computer know-how than those they are replacing in the classroom.

Unfortunately, none of this does much for existing faculty. Some teachers take summer courses or attend professional workshops, but a much more concentrated and urgent effort is needed, and this is where the private sector can help.

Intel recently announced it would spend $35 million to train 500 master teachers who will then go back to their school districts and train other faculty. Perhaps other companies will set up programs of this nature given the dire need for high-tech workers.

To encourage this, school districts need to form alliances and partnerships with informational technology firms, something that's already beginning to happen with colleges and technical schools. These firms not only can lend their expertise and perhaps equipment, but also let schools know exactly what skills are in demand.

Possible Actions

Chances are that schools will soon discover that courses and programs geared toward so-called practitioners jobs, which handle such needs as technical support, troubleshooting, customer service and software installation, are in high demand. These are jobs that don't require a college degree but rather specific skills—skills best learned by hands-on experience often in group settings where students can learn from each other, which in part can help offset the lack of adequate instruction.

In addition, collaborative learning also can prepare students for jobs in informational technology where teamwork is commonplace and highly valued. More generally, schools also should foster communication and problem-solving skills that are considered essential traits of successful technology professionals.

By ensuring students leave school with good basic skills, public education can greatly enhance the job prospects of many students as well as its own reputation. Indeed, one of the primary reasons so many students attend college is because they and their parents feel that their job prospects are bleak with just a high school diploma.

These efforts should be bolstered by an emerging trend—the hiring of young people by the informational technology industry who have not even graduated from high school! "If you have the skills they want you—there is no hesitation," says Katherine Van Ness, director of the career center at the University of California at Irvine.

This trend has been underscored by the increasing number of teen-agers who work in the computer field during the summers, earning between $10 and $20 per hour to temporarily fill the high-tech labor shortage. This year the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that 120,000 teen-agers will work in computer-related jobs; a decade ago only 4,000 did so. Of course, these temporary jobs will help pave the way for full-time work when the students are ready.

Many of these students report that they learn more on the job than in the classroom. Just as important, companies are increasingly willing to train these young people in the specific skills needed in the ever-changing world of computers and information technology. One can only wonder how many more students could benefit if public schools would develop programs to better prepare students for these jobs.

In short, public education needs to move swiftly to take advantage of a situation that has not been common in recent decades—the availability of well-paying jobs that require specific skills but not a college degree. A primary focus of the public schools must be to train students to meet the needs of the new economy, rather than having so many funneled into higher education where they will face a dubious future.

If the schools respond appropriately, students will be given a valuable option, while public schools can greatly enhance their own standing in the communities they serve.

William Beaver is a professor of social science at Robert Morris College, Narrows Run Road, Coraopolis, Pa. 15108. E-mail: beaver_2@email.msn.com