IT industry must redefine how it sells itself to youth: CompTIA

At its ChannelCon event, CompTIA reported results of research it commissioned on why the tech industry is increasingly failing to recruit suitable numbers of young players. Those findings indicated the industry has been using completely ineffective strategies, and needs to work on coming up with a different approach.

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Todd Thibodeaux, CompTIA CEO

HOLLYWOOD FLA — The IT industry is increasingly failing to attract young people, which puts it into a dangerous position with a wave of retirements slated in the near future. Moreover, the steps which the industry has been taking to woo youth have been misguided, and simply don’t work.

That was the rather depressing message of Todd Thibodeaux, CompTIA’s CEO, at his Tuesday keynote here. He did state however, that after significant study, CompTIA now understands what the problem is, which puts it on the path to developing a solution.

“We talk about selling a lot, but today we want to talk about selling ourselves, marketing ourselves to a next generation workforce,” Thibodeaux said.

This problem is of fairly recent vintage.

“For years, we had an unlimited pipeline of talent,” Thibodeaux said. “We never had to struggle. But a gap is starting to grow. Many are having problems getting the right talent for the right jobs.”

Some of the problems relate to distribution of people and jobs – jobs in places where people are not, and vice versa. Other problems relate to employer expectations. Thibodeaux said that many employers typically want 3-5 years of experience, and aren’t willing to invest in new workers.

“The gap in trained IT workers is now about 15 per cent short of the jobs available, and worse, the gap is getting bigger,” Thibodeaux said. “Young people are just not that interested in a career in IT. Now, lots of other industries – medicine, entertainment, transportation and finance – are sopping those people up.”

Thibodeaux said that tech industry increasingly isn’t the only place you can interact with technology, and that they are just as likely to work for the tech industry’s customers as the industry itself.

“We are struggling to stay in the Top 10 of industries to work for,” he said.

Part of the problem, he said, is the popular image of what a tech worker looks like – the 1970s image of a nerd with pants hiked up to the waist.

“Working in our industry is still seen as too hard, too anti-social, too white and introverted.”

Thibodeaux also said that the STEM movement – the US educational focus on Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics – hasn’t really helped the IT industry.

“Fifteen years ago, we would have dominated the T in STEM, but today, the T has become the exclusive domain of coding,” he said, “We are being displaced in the tech agenda in schools by coding. We need coders for sure, but that’s not the only part of technology.”

So what is to be done?

“To attract the best and brightest, instead of marketing the industry for the tech geek, we need a different approach,” Thibodeaux said. “How do we convince the workplace of the future that IT is the best place to be?”

CompTIA embarked on this task by partnering with global design company Ideo, with the goal being how to best encourage kids 14-18 to pursue a career in IT. Ideo’s research found a segmentation between two phases, which overlap overall, although it varies by individual, in the junior year of high school.

“The Aspirational Phase is the dreamers, for whom any career could be interesting.” Thibodeaux said. “For them the future is completely open, but they are not in a career mindset. It’s too far off.”

The second phase, which kicks in around the Junior year, is the Reality Phase.

“At this point things solidify, but not about careers and jobs,” Thibodeaux said. “For them the college dream is all powerful. They still have no idea what they want to do, but they feel they will figure it out in college. That’s the case even for those for whom college is not a realistic financial reality.

“We didn’t understand this power that the college dream has,” he stated. “College isn’t seen as career focused. College is taking the next step in adult progression. It’s about affirming status as an adult, not career preparation.”

This finding, Thibodeaux said, showed that CompTIA’s entire previous strategy for interesting kids in tech was misplaced.

“Programs focusing on careers in high school are falling completely on deaf ears,” he said. “Nothing sticks at this age.”

A second main lesson the Ideo research provided was that high school curriculum is all about college prep, and that didn’t include IT skills.

“Hands on tech skills aren’t seen as college prep today,” he said. “Hardware-focused tech programs have been eliminated, or relegated to after-school programs – and not just in vocational schools. Coding has hijacked the college preparation mindset.”

The third lesson is that there is no silver bullet to fix this, no single website or YouTube viral video that will do the trick to pursue young people to pursue a career in IT,

“We started thinking that developing the right platform would have solved everything – and it wouldn’t have,” Thibodeaux said.

Other lessons learned are that kids have gotten the message about following your passion, and that role models are critically important.

“It’s important to see passion coming from a trusted source,” he said. “That makes all the difference for kids.”

That’s something that CompTIA and its associated IR professionals is well placed to provide.

“We need to build a sustainable nationwide model to engage young people,” Thibodeaux said. “In addition to providing hardware software and money, we need a pool of passionate people — which we have – people who took the time to be certified.”

Charles Eaton, CEO of the Creating IT Futures Foundation, then took the podium to discuss how CompTIA plans to turn all these insights into results.

“We will spend about four years working in projects on new ways to engage young people,” Eaton said. “Next Up is the program’s name, and it will question CompTIA’s own past and present assumptions.”

The first focus is finding education partners with whom CompTIA can develop in school and out of school curriculum and projects. He specifically referred to FUSE at Northwestern University, and TechGirlz, with their TechShopz in a Box aimed at middle schools, and taught by passionate experts like the ones CompTIA provides.

“We will wind up in a bad situation down the road with not enough people to fuel the industry,” Thibodeaux concluded. “If we don’t have the people to do it, it won’t happen.”