The young tech crowd
How do you grow the next generation of high-tech workers for the in-demand technology jobs Iowa employers are struggling to fill?
Get them started at a younger age, according to high school students enrolled in the computer programming career academy regional center at Des Moines Area Community College’s (DMACC) Ankeny campus.
“It’s too late by the time you get to high school because you are already on a certain path,” said Valley High School Senior Ethan Douglas. “I looked for opportunities in middle school and when I couldn’t find any I went online and taught myself how to build my own computer. But not everyone is going to do that.”
The state of Iowa is looking to change that. Last year, legislation was passed that is helping shape the future of career and technical education (CTE) across the state. Among other things, the redesign of secondary CTE aims to introduce exploratory coursework earlier to better prepare students for higher-level academic and technical training. This year, information technology was broken out as one of six secondary CTE service areas. Iowa schools are required to offer programming in four of six CTE areas, which include information technology, human services, health sciences, business, applied sciences and agriculture.
And just this spring, legislation was signed into law that calls for the creation of high-quality computer science instruction and the development of recommended standards. The goal of this legislation is that by July 1, 2019, every elementary school will offer instruction in the fundamentals of computer science, every middle school will offer exploratory computer science, and every high school will offer at least one high-quality computer science course.
Michael Lentsch, director of program development at DMACC, oversees the Ankeny Career Academy where students enroll in year-long programs consisting of college-credit courses in targeted industry fields.
While the career academies offer students courses for college credit, they differ from the joint enrollment opportunities that are available to students at their high schools.
“Both provide students with opportunities to earn college credit,” Lentsch said. “But most of the career academies are capital intensive and start-up costs are too high for schools to do it on their own.”
By attending classes at a DMACC site, schools are able to share resources and students get a chance to further explore a career field that wouldn’t otherwise be available to them.
DMACC relies on CTE classes at the high school to give students a taste of a particular field. For those with a real interest, career academies provide an opportunity to take their learning further. Upon completion of the computer programming career academy, students will have accumulated 18 college credits of database and programming courses as well as an industry-recognized certificate.
“It is definitely a commitment for the students,” Lentsch said. “We treat them like college students and the courses are part of their college transcripts. But in return, they save about one semester’s worth of college coursework, which is a savings of around $3,000.”
Students are just three weeks into to the semester and are already coding.
“It is like solving puzzles for pay,” said Dowling Catholic Senior Gabriel Jensen.
Gabriel became interested in the career academy after taking a programming course at Dowling. Several students have parents who work in the field. One student changed her career path from hard science to computers after attending a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) conference. All agree that the work to expose students to information technology earlier will get more students interested in the field.
DMACC has already seen steady growth in the computer programming academy over the past three years. With Iowa working to expose students to computer science earlier, Lentsch anticipates the growth to continue. DMACC recently signed an agreement with Iowa State University to create an Iowa Cyber Hub, a regional facility where companies can work with institutions on cyber security issues. While it is still in early planning stages, they are also talking about adding a new cyber security career academy to the lineup.
Real-world experiences are also infused with the academies through things like mock interviews, business tours, job shadowing and internship experiences.
To make those connections, Lentsch and his team work closely with Amy Steenhoek, who heads up DMACC’s Career Discovery Network, part of the Iowa Intermediary Network, a statewide network comprised of 15 community college regions that work with every Iowa school district.
“It is great to have Amy as part of our overall program to help connect course curriculum to careers,” Lentsch said. “The ultimate goal is to fill high-need vacancies and we need the Career Discovery Network and the other intermediaries across the state to help connect those dots.”
Steenhoek also sets up Career Discovery Days, where students learn more about a career field, explore the specific programs available at DMACC and interact with local businesses through tours and employee panel discussions. Last year over 2,300 high school students attended one of 24 different discovery days.
“Discovery days are important because they help students find fields that align best with their skills and interests,” Steenhoek said. “They may validate their interest, which prompts them to take it further through a career academy, or they realize they don’t really like the field. It’s all about exploration.”
Matt Julius, who teaches the computer programming academy courses, loves the energy of high school students who have been exposed to technology their whole lives. He sees students who complete the academy having a real competitive advantage.
“They can get relevant work experience while continuing to work towards two- and four-year degrees, giving them an edge over other jobs candidates,” he said.
These programs are helping build Iowa’s talent pipeline for the careers of today and tomorrow, which is key to the Future Ready Iowa initiative that calls for 70 percent of Iowans having education or training beyond high school by 2025.
“This room is our future,” Julius said. “I definitely feel more confident about our future knowing it is in their hands.”
To get more young people interested in careers in IT, the students say outdated stereotypes need to be shattered. Their insights provide a more realistic picture of what students can expect.
Innovation takes creativity
The notion that information technology is devoid of creativity and is only about isolated strings of code is short-sighted.
By its very definition, being innovative involves introducing new ideas and being original and creative in thinking. Interpreting underlying needs, finding new ways to solve problems and building systematic solutions takes creativity.
“It’s like Legos for adults,” said Valley High School Senior Ethan Douglas.
It’s a team mentality
Advances are made through collaboration. Today’s IT workers are neither insular nor reclusive. In fact, in top-notch organizations, business and IT work together on projects, which involve listening to and engaging internal and external customers.
“Working in IT isn’t an isolating job,” said Ankeny Centennial Senior Haadi Majed. “You do a lot of things in teams. Through Centennial’s Orbis program, we have companies come to us with real problems and we work together to find mock software solutions.”
It’s not just for boys
One of the strongest stereotypes is that only males succeed in the tech industry, but that isn’t true. In fact, domestically, 42 percent of IT professionals employed by Des Moines-based Principal Financial Group are women.
“I attended a ‘Women in STEM’ conference where I sat in on some mini classes and I was hooked,” said Urbandale High School Senior Hannah Mizy.
There is something for everyone
As a field with many different occupational paths, IT touches every industry. Programming, network security, embedded technology and business analytics are just a few of the different pathways within IT, each with varying levels of education and skill requirements. Students do not need to be prodigies to excel and succeed.
“Don’t be intimidated,” said Johnston High School Senior Spencer Collison. “Learning a programming language is like learning a foreign language, only it’s easier to pick up than Spanish.”
Find out more about how to incorporate more information technology programs for the new CTE service area: Arts, Communication and Information Systems.
Read more about how the Iowa Intermediary Network is helping students test drive careers.
Read more about how Iowa is cracking the code in information technology.