Oct 31 2006

IT Managers Look For Staff That Maintains A Strong Network

IT hiring trends show that schools look for IT personnel who can keep the infrastructure on an even keel.

“Given limited resources, many IT managers look for generalists. ”

Suppose a teacher prepares a 40-minute history lesson during which teams of students search the Web to gather facts about Civil War battles. The students get into the “game” and eagerly dig for interesting tidbits to report back to the class. Then the school network goes down for 10 minutes. A quarter of the day’s lesson is lost.

Avoiding such a scenario is the top priority for schools nationwide, and that’s what information technology directors keep in mind when considering new hires. The opportunities that technology presents for schools are enormous, but along with those opportunities come potential problems.

Large corporations often look for creative geniuses who can introduce new tools to propel them into the future, but when it comes to hiring, schools are on a constant quest for staff members who can ensure the reliability of the existing infrastructure. There are pockets of experimentation, explains Irwin Kroot, CIO of the New York City Education Department. That’s how schools improve educational value, but that’s not what IT departments are built around.

With 1,500 schools, New York City has a lot in common with Fortune 500 companies. But like its peers, the city is just now figuring out technologies that corporate giants mastered years ago, Kroot says. Helping collect, share and analyze data; replacing and interconnecting legacy applications; maintaining networks — especially wireless — in schools; and keeping infrastructures secure. That’s what schools expect from IT hires today.

Priority Versus Need

Enterprise data architecture tops the priority list at schools around the nation, in part because of increasingly stringent state and federal reporting requirements, but also because of increased expectations from faculty and staff. As people discover technology’s potential, they expect it to provide more insight into performance. Given that limited resources are a reality that most schools share, however, many IT managers aren’t interested in hiring experts in these high-priority areas. Rather, they look for generalists who can add value throughout the IT department.

In the last few years, Henry County, Va., lost 10,000 textile industry jobs because corporations such as DuPont moved offshore. Many of the lay-off packages included money for retraining and, thanks to an IT program at the community college, several workers opted for tech degrees.

That dramatically widened the bank of skilled IT workers for the Henry County Schools in Collinsville, Va., says IT Director Janet Copenhaver. But she still struggles to find technical generalists who can juggle different platforms, operating systems and technologies.

Training Up

High on Kroot’s wish list is additional funding for professional development. That way, he can hire a programmer when that skill is missing from his staff, but then train the programmer in new skills centered around the district’s needs.

Those skills many not even be technical. Business skills, such as project and financial management, can be just as critical as programming expertise. At National Heritage Academies — which has private schools in Indiana, Michigan, North Carolina, New York and Ohio — personal skills such as creativity in solving challenges, team leadership and the ability to communicate effectively with customers are as critical, if not more so, than technical skills, says IT Director Max Hunsicker.

Perhaps the biggest piece of advice IT hiring managers offer prospective candidates is that they ask them why they want to work in a school district in the first place. As Kroot puts it: With limited resources, frequent crises and modest paychecks, “it makes a huge difference if you remember we’re doing this for the kids.”

Chris Rother is group vice president for CDW Government, a leading technology provider to government and education. She is a passionate advocate for enhancing the educational experience with technology.