A central focus of my work as Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Technology Policy during the late 1990s was preparing American workers—especially scientists, engineers and technologists—for jobs in the new economy. Today, with enormous changes afoot in the world of information technology (IT), preparing Americans to compete and win in the digital economy is even more important—and more challenging—than when I served in government.
For me, this is more than a policy issue, it is a personal one, as I try to help my nine year old son and five year old daughter prepare for their own futures.
To address this challenge, we need to begin by facing some hard facts: Offshoring is here to stay, and US IT workers now compete in a global talent market. Since US IT workers will never be willing or able to compete for the world’s IT work on price, what will be the source of our competitive advantage? And how can women lead the way in the global science, engineering and technology enterprise?
Although U.S. IT workers led the world into the digital age, the IT labor market has changed dramatically in the last decade. The ubiquity of computers and telecommunications worldwide in addition to a push for business reengineering has given educated workers in low-wage nations newfound access to business opportunities in advanced economies.
On the other hand, there are many IT jobs that are likely to stay in the US. These involve: leading-edge research; multi-disciplinary work; work involving uncertainty, in which there is a highly iterative development process; and work that requires high-levels of creativity, innovation, analysis, non-rule-based decision-making, personal interaction with clients, or close integration with processes and systems located here. As IT goes global, cultural sensitivity and appropriate technology solutions also are gaining in importance.
A recent Commerce Department analysis explored what skills IT employers want. Many are business and customer-oriented skills such as: project development management; communications, liaison, and relationship building; business analysis and planning; contracting and negotiation; business problem solving; service management; and business transformation. Technical skills in demand include data mining, network engineering and architecture, middle ware, security, Internet and web architecture, and a whole complex of skills surrounding open standards software.
In addition to making changes at the college level to provide students with the skills that IT employers need and want, we need to do more to prepare young women and minorities for future IT jobs. Despite more than 20 years of effort, women are still under-represented in IT as well as in many other science and engineering disciplines.
These efforts must begin early. Research shows that, at about middle school, girls start to lose interest in math and science. Although girls score as well as boys on standardized math and science tests throughout high school, girls simply opt out of programs—such as algebra—that are gateways to higher level math and science education.
I believe today’s IT environment—which focuses on integration, business management, organizations, customers, communications, collaboration, creativity, and cultural awareness—is more favorable for women than the hard-code and business applications environment of the 1980s and 90s. In addition, the female “digital natives” are growing into the marketplace, girls and women who have grown up with technology and integrated it seamlessly into their lives. IT-based businesses want to know what makes these women tick, and they are beginning to offer more digital products and services designed to appeal to women. It makes good business sense to tap the female sector for conceiving, developing, and marketing products and services that meet the needs of these up-and-coming technology-savvy women.
The digital world is continuing to evolve rapidly, with major implications for the IT workforce. We at TechVision21 monitor these trends closely, and analyze them for their impact on our clients. I believe that, even in the era of offshoring and global delivery models, there are new and ripe opportunities for women who are well prepared for the new U.S. creative and IT-enabled business environment. As parents, teachers and CEOs, we need to actively prepare our nation’s girls to seize these opportunities.
Kelly Carnes is President and CEO of TechVision 21, a Washington D.C.-based firm helping its clients secure appropriations, grants and contracts from the federal government to support R&D, technology, economic development and workforce development projects.