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SXSW panel focuses on how to steer students into tech jobs

IT, higher ed leaders aim to bridge awareness gap

By Cristina Peña, Austin Community Newspapers Staff

School districts continue to see a shift in education structure with the increasing influx of technology-based careers. That prompted higher education institutions in Central Texas and IT professionals to recently pitch innovative ideas on how to prepare the high school student for today’s technological world.

A panel of education- and technology-based company leaders spoke at SXSW Interactive in Austin March 8 to directly address problems and solutions to the technology gap in education.

The panel consisted of Concordia University Dean Don Christian; Donald Tracy, Austin Community College College Director for CE Business OPerations and Marketing; SureScore Vice President of IT Solutions Nathan Green; and Nick Parker, uShip Vice President of Engineering.

Panelists noted one of the biggest struggles is that students are not being taught about technology-based careers in school or are not aware that some jobs need only basic training instead of a four-year education.

Christian said colleges, either two-year or four-year institutions, should work on bridging the education gap themselves instead of expecting students out of high school to be their idea of college-ready material.

“I think college-ready was always math and science, history and writing, but maybe there’s a new college-ready in technology,” Christian said. “For us, as educators, we need to redefine college-ready and maybe say, ‘If you’re not this, we’re going to get you there’ and that development needs to happen.”

One possible solution to training high school students, Tracy said, is to integrate industry certifications into the school day and provide an opportunity for students to have a lucrative career right out of senior year.

“There’s a stark reality — a lot of kids don’t go straight into a four-year program, or even a two-year program. A lot of kids go to work,” Tracy said. “If the high schools were better prepared to help a kid get an industry-recognized credential, not just a high school diploma, which is not an industry recognized credential, but say an IT certification or health care certification, that student can go into a significantly better employment opportunity.”

The Austin Community College Round Rock campus has recently opened two labs to support industry certifications. One lab is dedicated to a medical nurse aid certification and the second is for PC technician and web development certification programs. The non-degree programs are generally between seven and nine months long and prepare students to take certification exams.

Through the continuing education department at Austin Community College, Tracy works with local businesses to help build the type of workforce needed for the current and future economy. But Tracy said the second component to a successful workforce is the cooperation of education institutions at all levels.

“We need to be as connected to business as we can and collaborate the best we can with Texas State University and the Round Rock school district,” he said. “I think connection with business and collaboration across education institutions are critical pieces moving forward.”

Green said according to his company’s data, there are 1,200 occupations in the Austin area, but many teachers may think there are as many as 50. Engineers at uShip have recently been working with schools districts in Central Texas to show students what a developer does and expand the idea of a career past traditional occupations.

“A lot of people think when they graduate they can be a doctor or lawyer or fireman or cook, like they have a very limited set of things they can do,” Parker said. “We’ve been working with schools to let them know that there are technology jobs out there that are highly lucrative and that don’t even necessarily need a college degree.”

Gaining access to those 1,200 occupations may need a fundamental shift in education, which may have to start with parents before children even step into a classroom.

“We start reading to our kids when they are two years old. We don’t think of that as, ‘What kind of job are you going to get with this?’ Christian said. “This is long-term, but when do we shift STEM education to, ‘This is just what you do as a human being’ I think when that happens, 1,200 job options open up.”

A lot of focus has been placed on science, technology, engineering and math courses, commonly referred to as STEM, but lately, Tracy said some schools have integrated the arts into the mix and advocate for creative skills. But teamwork is also an important skill needed in the workplace.

“Let’s turn those letters around and instead of STEAM, say TEAMS,” Tracy said. “The creative application of STEM skills in a collaborative environment is truly the definition of success in the 21st century so when we talk about bridging the gap for kids coming out of high school, we need to teach them to think creatively, but also teach them to work collaboratively.”