Electronic Design

Is The Pace Of Technology Development Creating A Skills/Education Debt?

With technology accelerating even faster than originally predicted by Moore’s Law, what kind of people does the industry need to keep pace with new developments? And is the industry supporting them appropriately through our universities and other educational opportunities?

Many people are wrestling with these questions, including Tracey Wilen-Daugenti, vice president and managing director of Apollo Research Institute, a research division of Apollo Group, the parent company of the University of Phoenix and seven other education services (Fig. 1).

1. Tracey Wilen-Daugenti, vice president and managing director of Apollo Research Institute, has studied the role that education plays in preparing engineers for work in the industry.

Wilen-Daugenti’s recently published book, Society 3.0—How Technology is Reshaping Education, Work and Society, explores how evolving channels of communication will force businesses and workers to compete for jobs in a global, technology-driven marketplace (Fig. 2).

2. Wilen-Daugenti’s recently published book, Society 3.0—How Technology is Reshaping Education, Work and Society, explores how evolving channels of communication will force businesses and workers to compete for jobs in a global, technology-driven marketplace.

Wilen-Daugenti believes that employers must be more proactive in communicating their needs to current and prospective employees, while universities should be doing a better job of meeting those needs.

“We may be rapidly creating a skills and education debt. Education is the pipeline to careers. The two should be more closely integrated. I think you will see that increase as a trend over time,” she says. Also, most employers are communicating their “talent” needs mostly through job descriptions, and their requirements fluctuate, she notes.

Closing The Skills Gap

Wilen-Daugenti says Apollo Research is conducting a major research project this year aimed at determining how to close the gap between the technical skill sets required by the industry and what’s being taught in universities.

“We want to make sure education is channeling people into a successful career path,” she says.

This can be tricky, according to comments coming out of workshops that were instrumental in producing Future Work Skills 2020, a study by the University of Phoenix Research Institute, the Institute for the Future, a nonprofit strategic forecasting group, and other university leadership studies.

“Engineering is a dynamic career path, and people [who pursue engineering as a career] have to be on top of technology trends. Mechanical engineering was very popular in the 1980s and ’90s for designing a lot of the products we have today. Now, there seems to be more emphasis on programming languages,” Wilen-Daugenti says.

“Things are changing quickly. You have to keep your skills current. It’s a concern among IT professionals. And I see the frustration in individuals who want to know what they need to learn so they can immediately get a job,” she explains.

“Companies in Silicon Valley, where I live, and other technology hubs like Seattle, Austin, and New York City are competing for engineering talent, and now, it’s mostly about software, with employers looking for people proficient in PHP, SQL, C++, and Java.”

In her book, Wilen-Daugenti says that technical professionals including engineers will need to develop higher-order thinking skills and be well versed in emerging technologies to remain employable today and into the future.

Future Work Skills 2020 says technical professionals need cross-culture competencies—the ability to operate effectively in different cultural settings. The study also suggests that colleges and universities must adapt their curricula to the requirements of the industry and that advanced degrees will continue to be in demand as future jobs require more complex problem-solving skills.

Among other areas, Apollo Research is studying the return on investment of college degrees. In one of these studies, for example, the organization found that computer science graduates earn up to a 49% return on their tuition dollars.

The Future Work Skills Executive Summary presses the point that employers could do more in communicating their people requirements to prospective workers. Wilen-Daugenti says this is a key topic with many talent managers.

“Employers seek individuals who have the technical and functional skills to perform a job. But it is not enough for employers to say they are looking for ‘team players,’ or ‘good communicators.’ They have to be specific in describing what these skills really mean,” she says.

Wilen-Daugenti says employers can communicate their requirements and assess prospects’ competency using behavioral interviewing techniques.

“Engineers have to collaborate with others to complete projects, so part of a behavioral interview might be, ‘Tell me about a time you partnered with a coworker to complete a project. What was the outcome?’ In listening to a candidate’s response, an employer can assess if the prospect’s collaboration approach matches the collaboration required for the job,” she says.

Facebook Hires

Wilen-Daugenti points to Facebook’s Bootcamp program as an excellent example of a company’s efforts to bring new engineers onboard and assess their organizational fit. New engineers at Facebook spend their first six weeks in Bootcamp, an intensive orientation designed to assimilate new employees. The mentorship component of the program gives new engineers the opportunity to develop their leadership skills.

“The Bootcamp program has helped Facebook refine its recruitment process to select candidates who can best add value to the company,” Wilen-Daugenti says.

“We have a very connected world now. You really have to think through in your career planning globalization and what positions are available to you. A lot of those positions at this time are overseas. There’s a huge demand now for people with management experience in China, India, and other parts of the world,” she says.

One of Apollo Research’s findings in an ongoing study is that skills requirements vary by location. Many startups in the Silicon Valley/San Francisco Bay Area now require knowledge of multiple programming languages, Wilen-Daugenti says, and at least some background in finance and marketing is a plus.

“That’s different from other parts of the country, based on the industries in the area and marketing patterns,” she says.

Women In Technology

The role of women in technology is another well-studied area. Recent surveys and studies show that over the past 15 years, there has been some increase in female students in university majors where they are typically underrepresented. About 18% of women in the U.S. major in engineering, while slightly more (21%) have focused on computer science.

But this has occurred only after efforts by government agencies to attract women. In 2009, NASA set up the annual Conference for the Undergraduate Women in Physics to attract hundreds of female students. Top female scientists are featured in the program to provide role models for attendees.

This shortage of women in technical professions seems to be particularly true in information technology (IT). While jobs in IT are increasing, Wilen-Daugenti says that fewer rather than more women have responded to the need by entering the field.

A 2006 study estimated that only 26% of IT professionals were women, and men outnumbered women six to one in IT managerial and leadership positions. By 2010, the picture had improved somewhat, but women in IT still face challenges.

Part of the problem, Wilen-Ddaugenti says, is that many female entrepreneurs haven’t pursued advanced degrees. They also face other unique challenges, such as financing their ventures, inexperience with long-term financial planning, and keeping current with new technology.

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