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State education leaders working on problem

High-tech worker shortage impacts Mississippi

The bad news is that there is a widespread shortage of computer and technology specialists across the state. The good news is that state educational officials are being proactive about increasing the number of programs available to train people to take computer jobs.

“The shortage is such that it is preventing us from doing lot of the things we need to do in both the public and private sectors,” said Olon Ray, executive director of the State Board for Community and Junior Colleges. “We have a bottleneck that is hurting both economic and educational development because we simply don`t have the skilled people. One of the complications is that the private sector has more competitive salaries, and is hiring off a lot of key public sector people. So that produces problems, as well.”

Ray is co-chair of a technology committee composed of educators and state businessmen that was formed to address the technology training needs of the state. Technology committee co-chair Dwight Evans, president and CEO of Mississippi Power Company, said making sure Mississippi is at the forefront of technology is critical to both current and future generations.

“If we are to continue to provide quality jobs for Mississippians, we`ve got to embrace technology,” Evans said. “The jobs of today are demanding that students employ the use of technology as a first-line skill. This will grow more significant, not less.

“Technology is the key to our future. Not because it is here, but because it allows so many options for the work force of today. No matter what we say, everything we do and how we do it is influenced by technological process.”

Another major state business leader who believes Mississippi must keep pace with new technology is Bernard Ebbers, president and CEO of WorldCom.

“Technology will pervade very aspect of our everyday life,” Ebbers said at an information technology conference in Jackson earlier this year. “Failure to conform will leave us out of the running.”

Ray said educators are focusing on increasing the number of programs to train people to fill the vacancies. One of the programs is in cooperation with a major provider of computer hardware, Cisco, which manufacturers the switches used for Internet connections. Cisco, like most other technology companies, is having trouble finding enough people to service their equipment.

“So they want to be part of the solution,” Ray said. “We are attempting to find every way that we can to increase the number of programs and the number of graduates of programs.”

Some of those developments include considerable expansion of the advanced technology training program at Hinds Community College, and new programs and certifications at Jones County Junior College.

Despite surveys that show jobs in information technology are plentiful, and much better paid than average, a surprisingly small number of college students are entering this field. A recent AP article said, “Forget starting salaries above $40,000 and a choice of companies come graduation day. Freshmen may be toting laptops and chatting by e-mail, but they`re shunning majors that would put them on a fast track for computer jobs.”

Only 3% of high school graduates who took the ACT test picked computer and information science as likely vocations, and only 1% were interested in becoming a computer engineers.

Ray said those findings didn`t surprise him.

“Students have a lack of understanding of the job market, and the potential for earnings and security,” Ray said. “During a transitional stage such as this, people tend to stick to traditional majors. I think some may be a little reluctant to get involved in technology because they think it will require certain kinds of aptitudes they may not have. Certainly the technology field and computer field may be viewed as more difficult than other fields. It is kind of an unknown for people. “

Ray said a lot of graduates from other fields like liberal arts end up in computing and technology. “I think how much more ahead of the game they would be, if they had the background in technology,” he said.

Ray said educators need to do a better job of acquainting young people – and older people looking for better paying jobs – about careers in technology. Ray said tendencies toward careers are often are made as early as middle school. Students on a technology path can gear their high school courses to prepare them for college.

“You really have to start positioning yourself well back in the educational system,” Ray said. “It is up to high school teachers to make students aware of the supply and demand in the marketplace, and the financial opportunities that are available. We can provides classes, but we need students who are headed in that direction when they come out of high school.”

On a national level, the technology shortage is such that many foreign workers are now being allowed to enter the country to fill jobs. Ray said the companies that need these workers are arguing that there aren`t enough Americans to fill all the positions, so the number of immigrants allowed should be increased. The companies are asking for 190,000 foreigners to be allowed in to take high- tech jobs.

The shortage is likely to get worse before it gets better. The U.S. Labor Department estimates that the number of computer jobs will more than double by the year 2006.

About Becky Gillette

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