MS student survey identifies lack of IT education, soft skills

TORONTO — Microsoft Canada released a survey Wednesday that said many students feel their schools are not developing their technological skills properly, while a roundtable discussion inspired by the research yielded another danger — a lack of soft skills in and proper workforce preparation for future IT professionals.

The survey was conducted online with students from Grade 11 through second-year university. It found that, while 92 per cent of all students said that it is somewhat to very important to have technological experience to be successful in their careers, only 42 per cent of the respondees said that their school encouraged them to develop computer/technological skills.

Neville Samuell, a second-year mechatronics engineering student at the University of Waterloo, said that he did not find the survey results surprising, as many students today get better technology experience out of editing a blog or creating a MySpace page than going to computer class.

“There’s no way high schools can keep up technologically,” said Eugene Fiume, a computer science professor with the University of Toronto.

But Canada is unique, according to Microsoft Canada academic program manager Daniel Shapiro, in that most households in Canada now have a computer and that gaps in students’ computer education can often be covered at home or with friends.

Margaret Evered, a CIPS consultant and member, said that computer classes should be mandatory for all students at as many levels of high school as possible. “There will be a huge divide. The (people who don’t know how to use computers) will be the illiterates of tomorrow,” she said.

A more comprehensive digital media studies class might draw in more students, said Fiume. These types of computing, along with other industry-specific options (like biotechnology, graphic design, or nanotechnology, for example), are often unknown to guidance counselors, who don’t stream students — especially girls — into IT, according to Evered.

Girls could perhaps be more attracted to computer science if it had more of a visual component or a teamwork aspect that make social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook so popular, Evered said. Classes that generally mixed the straight computer science with the softer skills of web design and visual communications, along with the possible teamwork required to create them, could make for a more rounded student — and future IT professional.

Fiume said that key trends like usability and appealing design call for this set of fundamental, “soft” skills. “The industry is starting to recognize that, but it’s really hard for one person to be able to do everything, although the universities are starting to get this, and high schools are preparing students for that, too,” he said.

The roundtable agreed that universities should make more attempts to create more workforce-ready students. Samuell, who has already completed a co-op work term, said that he benefited from the use of soft skills during his term. He had heard, however, from some of his peers without these soft skills that they did not really get the chance to blossom during the work term, and were stuck with the routine assigned tasks, rather than anything special that might have come to them had they engaged more with their employer or team.

This could stem from IT workers’ perception of the value of soft skills. “It’s not in their success measure,” said Shapiro. “They want to make technical advancements.”

If students want to pick up business savvy to augment their purely technical studies, said Samuell, they have to take a course on the side or teach themselves. “They fail to recognize that this could help them,” said Samuell.

But getting more co-op programs off the ground could be tough, as many companies might be reluctant to incur the cost of a four-month placement. “There are overhead costs, so it’s rare to see a ROI, since they have to invest so much in training,” said Shapiro.

With these programs and the occasional industry expertise brought by professors, real-world previews can be scarce for students entering the IT field. “It’s being done piecemeal right now,” said Fiume. “No-one’s in a good position to do anything comprehensive.”

Any progress can also be dragged back by higher education’s habit of teaching outmoded programming languages that aren’t used commercially anymore, according to Evered.

If students manage to break into the workforce, they might hit yet another wall. One of the first things to go during budget cutbacks, according to Evered, is training. Companies also often don’t choose to invest in training their own IT staff in new programs or skill sets, preferring instead to hire a new person. “You move into a job and getting considerable training? That’s a thing of the past,” said Fiume.

But students are generally unaware of this, according to Samuell: “We can be spoiled because people want to hire us but we wake up once you’re on the job and you need to take business classes on the side.”

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