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The more our lives depend on technology, the less students seem interested in pursuing the science, engineering and mathematics disciplines that would prepare them for careers in the IT industry.

To make things worse, much of the current IT workforce consists of so-called “Baby Boomers,” born between 1946 and 1964, who are approaching retirement age.

And if that weren’t enough, says Kevin Faughnan, director or IBM’s Academic Initiative, employers have fewer resources to fund training programs to teach or sharpen IT workers’ skills, so intense is the pressure on companies to do more with less.

This confluence of developments is creating a “perfect storm” that has Faughnan and many others in the industry worried about finding enough talent to fill IT jobs in the future.

It’s not a new worry, to be sure. For years, vendors and channel companies have groused that they cannot find job applicants with the proper skills. Of course, some applicants complain that employers have unrealistic expectations in the level of skills they demand from jobseekers compared to the salaries they are willing to pay.

Complaints notwithstanding, there is a problem. If employees can’t find the skills they need, there is a failure somewhere in the system. And the failure has something to do with education.

The industry by and large has done little to address the problem of inadequate education in preparation for IT jobs. At times, the industry seems too eager to solve skills shortages primarily by importing talent from overseas, a practice that sends some U.S.-based workers into fits of frustration. IBM, Microsoft and Oracle are among the companies that employ workers with temporary so-called H-1B visas.

But IBM, says Faughnan, isn’t sitting around waiting for the problem to resolve itself. IBM recognizes that it can only survive as a high-tech company if it can attract the requisite talent, Faughnan says.

To that end, the company since 2004 has sponsored an aggressive program, called Academic Initiative, to promote computing careers not only in higher education but also among K-12 pupils.
The vendor works with schools such as Highland Park High School in Dallas, North Carolina State University, Rochester Institute of Technology and Pace University, to give students access to hardware, software and business know-how they can use to develop skills geared toward careers in IT.

Through Academic Initiative, students are not only introduced to and encouraged to learn technology skills, they also are challenged to demonstrate what they have learned. At Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, for instance, two students received guidance from IBM on creating a social networking tool to poll their fellow students on the Democratic primaries. The result was, accessible through Facebook.

IBM advised the students on technology and business strategy. Faughnan says the goal of Academic Initiative isn’t to develop IT skills alone, but also to create so-called “T”-shaped students who possess general business and industry-specific knowledge in addition to a technical foundation.

Some 4,000 IBM employees volunteer to work with teachers and professors to add IT-oriented programs to their curricula, says Faughnan.

In June, IBM released a set of Web-based tools and resources to help students sharpen the skills they need for IT jobs. Accessible through the Academic Initiative web site, the tools include tutorials, games, skills assessments and online forums that supplement, or complement, regular college and university courses.

Faughnan says the country needs some 10 million undergraduate students in science, engineering and math by 2012. Especially needed are women and minorities, whose enrollment in these disciplines is too low.

IBM is doing its part, but as Faughnan says, “Our light is under a bushel basket.” Others in the industry need to follow in Big Blue’s footsteps if we are to have a well-trained workforce going forward.

The issue IBM is addressing through Academic Initiative transcends the IT industry. New York Times columnist David Brooks attributes our workforce’s growing skills deficit to a de-emphasis on educational attainment in the last three decades. “This slow-moving problem, more than any other, will shape the destiny of the nation,” he says.

Pedro Pereira is editor of eWEEK Strategic Partner and a contributing editor for Channel Insider. He is at