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    Trying to Bring Students back into the Information Technology Field

    February’s unemployment rate of 8.1 percent is dismal news for job seekers, but there is some good news. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the number of professional information technology jobs would increase by 24 percent by 2016, an increase of about 854,000 jobs.

    Both nationwide and on Long Island, the information technology industry is growing, but companies are left scrambling to find qualified workers because enrollment for tech majors is down. The Outreach Program for Long Island Technology Education is geared towards enlightening young people about IT and encouraging students to pursue it as a career. The outreach program collaborates with Stony Brook University and is part of the Center of Excellence for Wireless and Information Technology.

    Technology is ingrained deeply into our culture, encompassing every aspect of Americans’ lives. People amble to the local coffee shop listening to music on devices that are smaller than a deck of playing cards while other people chatter with their friends on laptops that are smaller than the size of a spiral-bound notebook. The industry is growing exponentially and will become vital to people searching for jobs, especially in an economy that is spiraling out of control.

    “I just want to be able to secure a job in this market,” Binghamton accounting student, Michael Dea, said.

    According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, students are not flocking to this industry even though 10 of the 15 fastest growing jobs in the nation are in the technology sector. Here at Stony Brook University, the number of students enrolled in computer science plunged to 550 from 1,100 between 2001 and 2006. The total IT job availability in the 10-year period is estimated at 1.6 million, when replacement jobs are considered.

    Professor Robert W. Bednarzik of Georgetown University has studied the industry for years. In his research report in 2005, he assessed that the tech worker shortage is a result of the fear of outsourcing and the lack of education about IT.

    Scott Passeser, the founder of the outreach program, realized that there was a problem years ago in his 20 years of tech staffing experience. The trend triggered Passeser to establish the outreach program with Judy Murrah, who is involved in IT at Motorola.

    After the dot-com bust in 2001, the tech industry collapsed. The industry lost 30,000 computer software engineers and many other IT jobs. That is all changing. “The tech industry is healthy and expanding again, but the enrollment in tech majors is dropping like a stone,” he said.

    Murrah is the co-chairperson, and she believed that major companies are redirecting their resources and developing new computer programs that require technicians, mathematicians, programmers and engineers. The problem has shifted to finding qualified people for those jobs.

    “I shared first-hand experiences on the difficulties of finding, recruiting, and retaining technology talent in our Long Island companies,” Murrah said.

    The outreach program plans to visit high schools to teach students about IT opportunities. It also plans to organize field trips to different research laboratories in the tech industry, but these efforts will take time.

    Job fairs are also a key part of the outreach effort. The program is aiming to attract students in a holistic approach.

    Jeanne Greenfield, a parent of a college-bound student in Smithtown, said that the technology fairs the Outreach Program for Long Island Technology Education holds are effective in getting the message across. “I thoroughly enjoyed the presentations, and they gave me food for thought,” Greenfield said in a testimonial.

    Passeser emphasized that the esoteric language of computers is a myth. “Computer language is not computer language anymore because it’s in English,” Passeser said in an effort to topple preconceived notions about the tech industry that are entrenched in students’ minds.

    Aries Kaufman, the chairman of the computer science department at Stony Brook University, explained that enrollment also began to decline across the country because of the fear of outsourcing. But many didn’t understand what jobs were actually outsourcing.

    “Outsourcing was primarily for low-level jobs,” Kaufman said. Low-level jobs include answering phone calls that are incorrectly considered part of the tech industry.

    “Technology is moving forward in the United States,” Kaufman said, to stress that technology industry is growing.

    Though IT is transforming, many still aren’t motivated to pursue it as a career.

    Computer science student Christian Perez, 20, explained that computer science is tedious work. Students work hours on assignments, and one small error can ruin the entire project. The Hunter College student from Forest Hills, Queens, isn’t enjoying the computer science major and is considering switching to economics. “I just don’t want it to be my life,” Perez said.

    Others have gotten the message about the opportunities in technology. Statistics student Holly Grodsky, 20, was required to take a computer science class for her major. She enjoyed the computer sciences, and it is her minor today. “It’s a growing field, and everyone wants computer science,” the Stony Brook student said as she left her computer science class in the Physics Building.

    Edwin Lee, 21, was a studying abroad last year. When he got back, he heard that the economy was teetering at the brink of collapse and decided to major in computer science. “I wanted to diversify my skills,” he said.

    Chairperson of the computer science program at Suffolk Community College, Mike Russo, said it is common to see an increase in enrollment in the tech major during times of recession. “We’re bracing for the enrollment, but we’re ready to accommodate them,” Russo said.

    Statistics on the outreach program’s web site show that the current shortage of workers in the United States is expected to skyrocket because U.S. companies will need an additional 400,000 tech workers in 2010, but U.S. universities are only able to produce 60,000 tech workers. This has a serious negative effect because technology is becoming increasingly intertwined with the economy and people’s lives. The United States will stagnate and lag behind other nations in technology if the trend is not reversed.

    According to “Did You Know,” a series of videos that encapsulates the changing role of technology, 10 of the top professions in 2010 will be jobs that did not even exist in 2004. Students are being trained for jobs that do not exist yet.

    There are other outreach efforts to educate students about IT. Recently, Stony Brook University, Motorola and Microsoft teamed up for DigiGirlz Camp, a day camp that is geared towards encouraging women to pursue a career in the information technology sector. Passeser believed strongly in getting women into the field because ratio of men to women is staggering, with 14 men to every woman in information technology.

    Jack Poon, 19, noticed the lack of girls in the math and sciences at his school. The low number of girls pursuing the math and sciences bewilders the mechanical engineering student at Polytechnic Institute of New York University. He said that something should be done to encourage more females to pursue careers in the math and sciences. “There are way too many guys at Poly,” Poon said with a chuckle.

    Technology is advancing and expanding rapidly. Changes are coming soon as technology slowly merges with every aspect of society. “No matter what you major in, be prepared for change because change is coming,” Passeser said.

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