NSF puts IT work force under the microscope

The National Science Foundation is funding research to help explain why

women and minorities are underrepresented in the information technology

work force and find out what might be done to change that inequity.

The research should provide valuable information to agencies struggling

to fill their IT work force gaps. "The whole point is to look at it from

a nationwide basis," said Caroline Wardle, program manager and deputy division

director of NSF's Experimental and Integrative Activities Division. "We

want research results that are applicable throughout the country that benefit

government, education" and other organizations.

In general, women and minorities are underrepresented in IT fields,

but they are a "ripe source" for consideration in the federal government,

said Ira Hobbs, deputy chief information officer at the Agriculture Department.

A CIO Council report released last summer, co-authored by Hobbs, recommended

that the Office of Personnel Management encourage agencies to recruit from

nontraditional labor pools including women, minorities and disabled people

as a way to cope with the IT work force shortage.

Women and minorities in government generally make up a larger percentage

of the IT work force than in the private sector, the report said.

"The government does a better job than the private sector, but that's

not to say we couldn't do more," Hobbs said. "I think we need to be more

inclusive in our recruiting programs."

Mentoring and career development programs that are geared toward women

and minorities are good ways to encourage these groups to enter and advance

in IT fields, Hobbs pointed out in his report.

Some steps are being made in that direction. This year, the Information

Technology Association of America launched its Digital Opportunity Initiative,

which matches minority college students with IT jobs in the private sector.

The ITAA's program consists of an IT internship program as well as

an education and outreach program.

"We're doing this because we are concerned about the lack of minorities

in the IT work force. But we see these underrepresented groups as very untapped

resources of IT talent," said Marjorie Bynum, vice president for Workforce

Development at ITAA.

"Not only do they have the talent, but they have the interest. We feel

that these positions we're asking companies to [provide] will give them

exposure to IT," she said.

By reaching younger workers earlier, they are more likely to consider

an IT career, Bynum said.

Seeking Solid Data

NSF decided to fund between 15 and 25 research projects this fiscal

year to collect the data it needs to help determine why women and minorities

are underrepresented in IT and help encourage their participation in the

field.

The awards will range from $75,000 to $250,000 per year for up to three

years. Proposals are due June 22.

The research projects will address how IT education and career choices

for women and minorities are influenced by access to technology, popular

culture and quality-of-life issues.

Studies will look to fields such as engineering, medicine and law for

successful strategies for attracting and retaining women and minorities.

Wardle said she wants the NSF researchers to take a multidisciplinary

approach to come up with solid data. "Instead of just funding ideas, we

decided it is important to have a research program that will give us the

hard data," Wardle said. "When the [results] start to come out, we can fund

the implementation of those results."

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