Tuesday, October 23, 2007

A Motivated 17 Year Old

Meet Your Future Employee
Beth Stackpole

October 23, 2007 (Computerworld) Whatever you do, please don't call Stephanie Lee a geek. Sure, she's majoring in information technology and marketing at Marquette University in Milwaukee, where she's a senior.

But she doesn't write code, she isn't gadget-crazed or Internet-obsessed, and she positively isn't interested in a career as a programmer or tech support jockey.

What Lee is interested in is strategy. During a high school summer internship, she was charged with finding a way for a manufacturing company to more efficiently track packages overseas. Lee combed the Web for research. She chatted up employees to understand the process and the pain points. She even came up with an ROI strategy that convinced upper management to adopt her technology choice to fix their problem.

The experience ignited a passion in Lee to pursue a career in IT. "I've known ever since I was 17 that IT is for me," says Lee. "Most people assume that IT [people are] stuck in front of a computer the entire time, coding away. They don't understand that that's only one small component to our tool set -- our role is so much broader than that."

Dream employee? Absolutely. Does that mean hiring managers can expect Lee's contemporaries to enter the workforce equipped with a similar grasp of the big-picture concepts of a career in IT?

Well, no, say IT executives, human resource professionals and computer science professors.

Members of Generation Y -- roughly, the group born between the early 1980s and the late 1990s -- are arriving on the job market armed with up-to-the-minute technology skills, but they're lacking in other areas, such as business communication skills, employers say. Moreover, many are wary of IT as a viable career choice.

Tech lifestyle or tech career?

Certainly, when it comes to considering a career in technology, Generation Y is more jaded than generations past. The number of freshmen pursuing a computer science track has fallen by 70% since 2000, according to the Computing Research Association. The reasons are myriad.

Would-be technologists are turned off by the tech crash of the early '00s, the shift of jobs overseas to outsourcing providers, and an overall perception of IT as a go-nowhere, nuts-and-bolts profession, observers say.

And the up-and-coming generation puts a premium on work/life balance, having seen firsthand the toll working around-the-clock took on its parents. As a result, they tend to shy away from jobs that demand the 40-hour-plus workweeks typical of IT.

This is the group that simultaneously IMs, blogs, surfs the Web and downloads podcasts. In the end, ironically, it might be this extreme comfort with technology that most deters these young people from pursuing IT as a favorable, even desirable, career.

"To another generation, IT was cool because no one else knew much about it," notes Kate Kaiser, associate professor of IT (and one of Lee's instructors) at Marquette. "This generation is so familiar with technology, they see it as an expected part of life" -- and therefore not worthy of consideration as a full-time career.

When she's not teaching, Kaiser is an academic liaison with and charter member of the Society for Information Management (SIM). One of her responsibilities there is to work with other universities, technology companies and IT professionals to try to alter the perceptions today's youth have of technology careers.

Another of Kaiser's responsibilities is to work with other SIM members and peer professors to modify the IT curriculum nationwide. The goal is to reflect the need for up-and-comers to have stronger business, communication and project management skills -- all areas where this latest generation comes up short. "People in IT today have to be more well rounded -- they can't just have technical expertise," Kaiser says.

Web-ready collaborators

Technical proficiency is an area where newbies certainly aren't lacking. While they may not possess the tech skills of old -- expertise in outdated areas like NetWare, Cobol, even ColdFusion programming -- this new generation packs a punch with mastery of things like HTML programming and a complete comfort level with business basics like Microsoft PowerPoint and Excel, not to mention Web 2.0 advances like blogging and social networking.

Today's young workers are far more likely than their older counterparts to try using these new social and Web-based tools to solve old business problems, and they have a strong team orientation, which lends itself to the virtual collaboration so vital for today's global economy.

"By and large, this generation is very fluent with technology and with a networked world," notes James Ware, executive producer at The Work Design Collaborative LLC, a Berkeley, Calif., consortium exploring workplace values and the future of the workforce. "They're comfortable working with people in remote locations, they're comfortable multitasking, and they're not afraid to go looking for stuff. They have a sense of all things possible."

IM-speak in an IT world

Communication and basic math and writing skills, on the other hand, are not Gen Y's strong suit. According to a survey of 100 human resource professionals by outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc., although only 5% of college graduates overall were judged to be lacking in basic technical skills, more than half of entry-level workers possessed deficient writing skills and 27% were underperforming in critical thinking.

Some managers and academics attribute the skills gap to this generation's proclivity for cell-phone- and instant-messaging-induced "textspeak," regardless of whether it's for business or personal communication.

Other industry watchers view Generation Y's preference for virtual interaction in the digital world as a hindrance to developing face-to-face communications skills, a critical asset for a modern IT career. (See this article for more on what today's managers say are the hottest skills right now.)

"Part of the IT job is to teach others how to use technology, and the patience level of this generation is less than that of other workers," says Stephen Pickett, a longtime IT executive and current chairman of the SIM Foundation, a philanthropic organization dedicated to promoting IT as a career option. "We need to teach them how to talk to a leader -- how to relate to someone who's not as technically savvy as they happen to be. But all of that is learned behavior that can be changed."

Marquette's Kaiser has experienced Gen Y's communication shortcomings firsthand. She says some of her technology students often hand in work that isn't written in complete sentences, and their inclination to give an instantaneous response means they're less interested developing in writing and presentation skills.

"I'm not sure a lot of the technology things kids are doing promote their listening skills -- with IM or even Facebook, it's cryptic one-liners where they respond right away," Kaiser says. "And when you're writing with all this Web 2.0 stuff, no one cares how well you spell a word. It's a very different way of communication."

Chris Dodge is one student who certainly has his tech credentials in line. Thanks to his parents, both of whom worked in the tech sector, Dodge has been exposed to PCs since birth and knows enough to design and launch a blog, produce a podcast, or shoot, edit and post a YouTube video.

Dodge, now a sophomore at Georgetown University majoring in international politics at the School of Foreign Service, doesn't deny that his generation spends hours online in chat rooms or e-mailing and texting. But he takes exception to the suggestion that his generation's communication skills are compromised.

"Five minutes after [students] write their one-line text messages, they go to class and take five pages of notes or go back to their rooms and write 10-page research papers," he says. "I think the world is absolutely valuing speed over quality, but that doesn't mean we're incapable of appropriately expressing ourselves."

Worker Bee 2.0

The Generation Y crowd also has a different take on what it means to be an employee. While their parents may be company loyalists willing to put in long hours or pack up and move for the good of the business, not so for Generation Y.

These young people have seen firsthand the physical and emotional damage that working long hours can have on family life and health, say human resource experts. They also came of age witnessing the trauma of corporate downsizing and the outsourcing of technology-oriented positions to low-cost labor regions like India.

The new generation, therefore, is a lot less willing to bend to corporate politics and policies and has a certain air of entitlement when it comes to employment.

Generation Y, for instance, expects to be handed state-of-the-art technology (read: smart phone, laptop and wireless) as soon as they come on board, and they are less willing to start at the bottom rung and work their way up the corporate ladder.

"Generation Y is interested in wrangling their way through an organization, testing the waters and moving here or there if it so suits them," explains Jeff Alderton, principal for human capital at Deloitte Consulting LLC. "They're eventually going to get where they want to go, but in their way, not in the traditional fashion."

The new generation is also far bolder in asking for entitlements, whether it's a pay raise, training on the company's dime or simply time off. "They ask questions I never would have asked," says Mark Banks, vice president of human resources at Sciele Pharma Inc., an Atlanta-based pharmaceuticals company. "It's not about what they can do for you, but what as a company can you do to develop them."

One of the primary concerns of Generation Y is a flexible schedule and healthy work/life balance. This is a generation raised in the era of 24/7 connectivity, of wireless access and of being able to work wherever and whenever it suits them. The idea of trading in that flexibility for a structured workplace doesn't sit well with them.

Technology, they reason, is the enabler for letting people get their work done independently, without having to be in a certain place for a certain period of time.

"We have different expectations about what a work environment should be like," says Dodge. "I think a lot of us hope the age of the daily commute, the 9-to-5 workday and the cubicle farm are in the past. Certainly, with new technology, there is less of a need for the centralization of work production in an office, so long as the work gets done."

The SIM Foundation's Pickett isn't the only IT executive to say that kind of thinking is much too optimistic, if not downright deluded. Anyone looking to eventually reach a high-level management job in IT or finance -- or nearly any field, for that matter -- needs to be in the office, Pickett says. A lot.

"You can't develop relationships from afar or show leadership from afar. If you want to learn about the business, you pretty much have to be there," Pickett says. "To develop relationships with key executives, you've got to be in front of them. And you can't learn leadership skills unless you're watching how others lead."

Still, smart companies are aware of the misalignment and, where possible, are beginning to implement new policies and procedures to bring their work environments more in line with Generation Y's expectations.

Give 'Em What They Want

That's not to say companies should kowtow to the unreasonable demands of a new generation. Rather, they need to be open to embracing new work styles and finding some sort of middle ground.

"Large organizations that simply try to maintain their way of doing things in a monolithic fashion and which don't listen to and learn from younger folks are going to have problems attracting, retaining and motivating talent," says The Work Design Collaborative's Ware. "Companies have to change a bit."

Sciele Pharma is taking that message to heart. The company, where the average worker is in his mid-20s, equips its employees with state-of-the-art laptops and cell phones and has also implemented a variety of flexible work programs.

For instance, employees can adopt an alternative schedule, if approved by Banks and their managers, where they can work from home one day a week or come in between the hours of 6 a.m. and 9 a.m. and leave as early or late as they want, provided their work is done. Employees work 36.5-hour weeks, the company closes at 4 p.m. on Fridays, and workers are able to leave at noon the day before a holiday.

IT people in particular have the option of working from home. Those who have operational-type responsibilities -- monitoring and troubleshooting systems or doing EDI work, for example -- are encouraged to work at home a day or so a week and are given the equipment to make that happen, says David Bennett, IT director at Sciele Pharma. Those with development jobs are eligible to take advantage of flextime as well.

"Any job that lends itself to routine operations or where there is a need for a lot of solitary time to dig into a problem, [those employees] can work from home as long as it doesn't interfere with any planned meetings," Bennett says. "It creates benefits for the employee and the environment and makes for a better quality of life."

With quantifiable kinds of roles, Sciele can easily measure employees' results and hold them accountable, which in turn helps the company monitor whether its flextime arrangement is working, Bennett explains.

As progressive as Sciele Pharma may be, all of its work/life balance programs have essentially kept it in the hiring game but not necessarily given it an edge. "Employees today come in with these expectations," Banks says. "This has helped us retain our workforce, not attract a new workforce."

Stackpole has reported on business and technology for more than 20 years.

Bismarck Video Vocabulary: Due 24 October 2007, the printer has been down since last Thursday, you will need to print a copy yourself.

World History, Bismarck Vocabulary, due 24 October 2007
Bismarck Video Vocabulary


1. kaiser
2. Fatherland
3. imperial
4. balance of power
5. Iron & Blood
6. Hessians
7. Prussia
8. parliamentarian
9. statesman
10. chaos
11. economic
12. abdication
13. Queen Victoria
14. prime minister
15. order
16. profitable
17. unification
18. Germanic
19. Schleswig-Holstein
20. Denmark
21. embarked
22. Habsburgs
23. squandering
24. mobilizing
25. lurch
26. indissoluably
27. protector
28. exploit
29. rearguard
30. excellency
31. majesty
32. permeating
33. nationalism
34. Franz Joseph
35. Hohenzolleren
36. expediencies
37. reparations
38. relinquish
39. anarchy
40. insurrection
41. consent
42. yearned
43. unassailable
44. unfaltering
45. despotism
46. Sieg Heil