Industry can solve IT worker shortage

In January, MCI WorldCom and Cisco Systems Inc. donated $1 million worth of state-of-the-art Cisco equipment to the University of Virginia to initiate a new computer curriculum for Internet engineering.

This is the first program of its kind for undergraduates, and it is one important step in a portfolio of efforts to help address the shortage of skilled workers in emerging technologies. Students learn how to set up networking equipment, measure and interpret network traffic and understand how protocols of the Internet interact. By working hands-on in a lab environment with state-of-the-art equipment, they not only test the limits of the current generation of Internet protocols but explore and create new options and new technologies.

The desire to learn these skills is tremendous: UVA received three times as many student applications for the course in the first semester as there were spaces available. Interest continues to be high. The first students about to complete the course are enthusiastic about the program and impressed with the technology, and they value their newfound understanding of how the Internet works "under the hood." Many already have part-time jobs or internships at some of the leading high-tech firms in the area. It is anticipated that these graduates will be in high demand in Virginia and at federal offices nationwide.

Federal agencies have a tremendous need for these skilled workers, not only in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, which benefits from being only a three-hour drive from UVA, but throughout the United States and the world at other federal sites. Federal agencies are eager to deploy Internet-based applications that are accessible to citizens, but the shortage of skilled workers with an intimate understanding of Internet technology is one of the primary reasons that many federal agencies have delayed providing these online services.

There are 346,000 unfilled high-tech jobs across the United States today. That number is expected to increase significantly as we move into the next millennium. It is projected that 1.8 million new high-tech jobs will be created by 2005, many of which will be in the federal government. These are the types of jobs we want our children to have. High-tech workers earn salaries that are an average of 50 percent higher than most other workers. But these jobs also require high-tech skills. Skills and expertise must be accessible for today's youth through innovative curricula at institutions of higher education nationwide and through innovative educational offerings.

The time is now for industry and government alike to make the commitment to the academic community to provide the next generation - the Internet generation - with the resources and expertise they need to compete on a world level and to provide services for future generations. High-tech companies are donating funds and equipment to colleges and universities nationwide to support the study of technology. Cisco has pioneered Networking Academies, a program of educating high school students in Internet technology. Other companies are creating similar programs. The U.S. government is considering the proposed Cybercorps program, which would train network security specialists in colleges and universities for government service. The concept is that the government would offer scholarships for students to get a computer science or information science degree with a specialization in computer security. Graduates would pay back their scholarships with a period of government service.

We applaud these efforts and emphasize that more are needed - now. We must be creative in our endeavors, providing expertise and equipment along with financial support, to educate tomorrow's leaders today. Industry and government leaders must make it a priority to reach out to young people through existing educational channels and innovative options to help them learn the new skills of the emerging technologies - technologies that are changing the way we communicate, the way we work and live, the way the government serves the citizenry. This is vital to make the digital government of the future a reality in which not only the American public, but the world, interacts with federal agencies.

-- Massa is director of global government alliances at Cisco Systems Inc., Herndon, Va.

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