Call it a 21st century irony: Even as the unemployed are struggling to find jobs, businesses can't find enough workers with strong IT skills.
By no means is it a new problem. Since the beginning of the IT revolution, higher education has been challenged to keep programs and curriculum in line with rapid changes in technology and shifting market realities.
To help close the gap, community colleges are intensifying their partnerships with industry, and even other colleges, with the goal of offering more choices and career strategies to better prepare students for different types of IT jobs.
A case in point is the National CyberWatch Center, headquartered at Prince George's Community College (PGCC) in Largo, Md. The program was started nine years ago as a collaborative venture between 10 higher education institutions (two-year and four-year schools) in the Washington, D.C.–Baltimore metro corridor. Since that time, the program has become national in scope, and its membership today includes more than 130 institutions in 38 states, along with about 50 industry and government partners.
"We realized then, as we do now, that there is power in numbers," says Casey O'Brien, the director of the National CyberWatch Center, which is based at PGCC. "We recognized that there was this humongous need for qualified professionals in information security, and we realized that we would be stronger and more effective if we worked together because we would be able to benefit by learning what others were doing and really reduce these costly, time-consuming duplicative efforts."
Part of the center's mission is to work closely with industry to design and promote innovative ways to better educate the nation's cybersecurity workforce. The group's business partners — which include Microsoft, Cisco Systems, Northrop Grumman and the Defense Intelligence Agency — advise on curriculum, supply equipment and financially support certain programs, help roll out and test pilot programs, furnish program speakers and adjunct faculty, and recruit workers.
Such partnerships also give students access to different real-world learning experiences outside of the classroom, including competitions that allow students to assume responsibility for real-world systems in the face of constant attacks from teams of professional hackers.
CyberWatch officials are also leveraging their industry relationships to increase the acceptance of community colleges as a legitimate, go-to source for IT talent. Too many employers, most notably the federal government, mandate that cybersecurity professionals obtain a baccalaureate degree "for jobs that, quite frankly, don't need it," O'Brien says, and that's a major concern for PGCC, which puts about 600 students through its information systems security coursework each semester. "Part of our role is working with industry to increase their awareness that there are plenty of people who are, in fact, really skilled and come from strong community colleges who aren't on the radar of some of these employers, but they should be."
On the Front Lines
Community colleges have a long history of partnering with industry to fill the technical skills gap. Springfield Technical Community College (STCC) in Springfield, Mass., has worked with a number of companies, including Cisco, EMC, Juniper Networks and Verizon, to expand skills training to both traditional students and displaced workers. Each partnership is unique in terms of its arrangement and goals, says Gordon F. Snyder Jr., executive director of STCC's National Center for Information and Communications Technologies.
STCC worked closely with Verizon to develop a curriculum and retrain regional Verizon technicians as the company transitioned its product offerings from voice-only to data and video communications. To date, more than 8,500 Verizon employees have completed the program. In the case of EMC, STCC faculty received direct training from EMC on storage technology, then they in turn trained other faculty at community colleges nationwide while also teaching the curriculum to their own students.
The community college/industry relationship is taking on new urgency as the demand for workers with IT skills skyrockets, not just in high-tech industries, but in all types of organizations. Many of those positions don't require the broader education provided by a four-year bachelor's degree, says Cushing Anderson, program vice president for project-based services at IDC. Community colleges, which tend to be more agile and in tune with the local industry and economy, can develop students with skills that more closely fit the requirements of available and in-demand jobs.
"Four technical classes at a community college and whatever you got out of high school is probably sufficient for a good chunk of IT jobs," he says, including entry-level and non-managerial help desk support, network installation and management, systems administration, archiving and storage management, programming, and video and telephony administration.
"I think community colleges offer students a lot of flexibility and a lot of options," Snyder says. "It's a stepping stone to higher education; for others, it's a way to get into a high-skilled, well-paying position and start their career if that's what they want."
The high demand and short supply of IT workers also is leading community colleges to become increasingly innovative in their industry partnerships. A group of nine colleges in Louisiana and Mississippi (known as Retraining the Gulf Coast Workforce Through IT Pathways Consortium) recently developed a new program to prepare students and displaced workers for entry-level jobs in cybersecurity, industrial technology and health IT.
Developed with a $14 million grant from the Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College Career Training program at the Department of Labor, it starts with a 12-hour curriculum that relies on the Integrated Basic Education and Skills Training (I-BEST) approach. Two instructors in each course accelerate students through English and math remediation while they also learn foundational technical skills and professional ethics. Students who complete the course are prepared to take the national IC3 certification exam. During the second semester, all students work in an internship with a local employer.
The idea was born out of conversations with regional employers, says Jason Cooper, assistant professor for the Department of Technology, Engineering and Mathematics at Bossier Parish Community College (BPCC) in Bossier City, La., and campus lead for the Gulf Coast IT consortium: "We identified these three pathways as areas that are really growing, but also have a common need for IT skills."
In its first semester, BPCC saw 159 students complete the I-BEST curriculum, and many are already in internships. From there, students can apply for jobs with regional employers (who are committed to at least interviewing students for open positions), or continue on for a second year of studies to gain a certificate of technical studies or an associate degree.
Lisa Wheeler, BPCC's director of institutional research and grants, says the approach draws from a previously untapped supply of potential IT workers.
"The belief used to be that students needed a background or a strong aptitude for IT in order to jump in at the college level," Wheeler says. "This provides an on-ramp to that, so people can get the foundation they need and get up to speed and into the workforce that much quicker."