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Q&A: How IT Executives Can Help Schools Fix the 'Tech Skills Gap'

Gary Beach is the publisher emeritus of CIO Magazine, a publication serving chief information officers and other information technology executives from across the business world. His new book, The U.S. Technology Skills Gap: What Every Technology Executive Must Know to Save America's Future, hits bookstores this week. Beach talked with Education Week about why he believes the "technology skills gap" is real, why he worries that the Common Core State Standards are not going to bring about the overhaul that America's schools need, and how he thinks the technology industry can make a difference.

The transcript of our conversation below has been edited for clarity.

What do information technology executives and chief information officers see when they look at American schools?

You hear about the skills gap. They believe it's real. They're seeing the difficulty of finding men and women to fill jobs that are open.

They're not finding folks that have the basic skills to do basic [math and science.] And what you're hearing more and more is that what's even more important to business execs are the so-called soft skills: things like collaboration, the ability to use social media, cross-cultural communication, how do you process massive amounts of data, trans-disciplinary skills. These are the things [businesses] need.

There's been high-level talk for decades about the importance of improving math and science education. But, as you point out in the book, the urgency hasn't really filtered into schools. Why do you think that is?

I think Americans care deeply about improving the quality of our public education system. But these reports come at you, and they're debated, and then they're put away on a shelf.

What I'm trying to do is connect the dots. You can hear a louder beating of the drum with the frustration from the business community. Something's wrong. I think the point that's going to drive home the problem [to the average American] is the persistently high unemployment rate. If that continues, there will be stronger calls for action.

Earlier this year, the Economic Policy Institute published a report saying the dire warnings about STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] skills and labor shortages are overblown. Is industry crying wolf?

I don't think it's crying wolf at all. If you look at the numbers, there are about 3.8 million open jobs. That shouldn't happen in an economy where unemployment rates are persistently high.

Those who say the skills gap is fiction, economists and the New York Times editorial board...everybody has data to prove their point.

The point I'm writing about is that [IT executives] believe that the discipline of math and science, how it teaches you to think, is important. But what is most important to prospective employers is how we can best teach those other skills [like collaboration and problem solving.]

The country that figures out how to do that is going to be the country that is going to have the strongest economy, the most employable workforce, and is going to be the most secure in this era of cyber war and so forth.

Are IT executives encouraged by the Common Core State Standards? They are intended to focus on a lot of what you are describing.

Maybe the common core could be a way of embedding those kinds of skills in the workforce.

But what I worry about is how sincere are the 46 states that have adopted them? Are they doing it because it's a better way [to educate children,] or are they doing it because they knew they were not going to hit their [No Child Left Behind] proficiency targets, and it's all about getting federal funds?

My second worry is where are we going to get the teachers to teach the common core? This all sounds great on paper, and I support the skills entirely. But who's going to teach them?

The bottom line for me, I think if our country decided today that if we wanted to embed those other skills into our education system, it would take 10 or 20 years before we see the results. I'm not certain we have the patience to wait that long.

What do you want IT executives, CIOs, and business leaders to get out of this book?

I'm hoping they get involved. There's a big perception among young Americans that IT workers or STEM workers are eggheads and that those are largely professions for guys. One of the recommendations I make is for IT executives to put the book down and call your local school's guidance counselor and offer your expertise about what a career in IT is all about.

How do you think educators will react?

In the education community, there's sometimes this sense of, "Oh no, not another person who wants to help us. Thanks for the offer, please go away."

I certainly can't appease that tension. But one of the things I also recommend to IT professionals is that they become part of the [educational] system. It's not outside intervention. I'm hoping that the book might inspire IT people who look at this problem to get involved by finding second careers as teachers. That would be a big win for me.

What lessons can K-12 education can learn from industry?

What I would recommend, what my research has exposed me to, [is a report from] McKinsey & Company. They went in and studied why Finland, South Korea, Japan, and Singapore were always performing well [on international math and science tests.] In each of those countries, they make an effort to only hire as new teachers college grads who are in the top 20 percent of their college class. And then they pay them well. The whole concept is you can't give what you don't have.

Here in America, we don't hire new teachers exclusively from that top tier of their college classes.

I also feel very strongly that teacher unions need to be active participants in any systemic change to the American public education system. The whole work rule aspect of collective bargaining has to be changed if we're ever going to get the systemic reform we need.

What changes are realistic to expect IT businesses to spur in schools?

The idea of IT professionals calling up guidance counselors, I think that might be something that could happen.

I'd like to see IT people consider careers in education.

And I'd like to see businesses get involved. I'd like to see them pay into state-based education trust funds based on the number of [employees they] have. The money could be used to pay teachers more. Businesses just can't say we're going to move our jobs to China. They can't just sit on the sidelines like barking dogs as the caravan goes by. That ain't good enough. Businesses have to pay.

Follow @BenjaminBHerold and @EdWeekEdTech for the latest news on ed tech policies, practices, and trends.

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