Low Bar for High School Students Threatens Tech Sector

Friday Jul 16th 2004 by Tony Befi
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By the end of this decade, analysts predict the U.S. could face a shortage of 12 million qualified workers for the faster-growing employment sectors. The solution, Datamation's guest columnist writes, begins in high school.

After plummeting from historical highs, information technology employment seems to have stabilized. Most IT functions have no difficulty meeting their hiring plans, yet there also has not been downward pressure on salaries, suggesting we have reached a momentary equilibrium.

The U.S. Department of Labor forecasts the overall labor force will grow 1.4 percent annually between 2002 and 2012, slightly slower than the previous 10-year period. Job growth in the service-providing industries will continue to outpace growth in goods-producing industries and some of the fastest-growing occupations will be in our sector.

Computer specialists (software engineers, systems analysts and network and computer systems administrators), computer and information systems managers and computer repair specialists -- all positions that require highly developed logic, problem-solving, and listening skills, as well as a sophisticated understanding of customers' industries -- will be in strong demand.

Unsettling Statistics

The trouble is, while we will need workers with higher-level skills and educational requirements than ever before, the U.S. Department of Education reports that seven out of 10 students nationally graduate from high school without completing the courses needed to succeed in college or in the workplace.

Of those who go on to college, 49 percent require remedial courses. Students who must take remedial courses are significantly less likely to complete two- or four-year college degrees. By the end of this decade, analysts predict that our nation could face a shortage of 12 million qualified workers for the faster-growing employment sectors.

One reason many students fail to complete the rigorous academic courses considered necessary preparation for postsecondary education and jobs is that no one explains to them the long-term consequences of their high school coursework choices. Many students -- and their parents -- mistakenly believe that high school courses don't matter, that they can "make it up" with a GED or college.

This is wrong. Research strongly indicates that students who have completed rigorous coursework during high school are better equipped to advance to higher education, succeed in workplace or military training programs, and/or resume their education in preparation for career changes at a later date. Because the majority of jobs -- not just those in information technology -- now require some type of education after high school, all students need to complete a sequence of rigorous academic courses in math, lab sciences, English, social studies and foreign languages.

The State Scholars Initiative, an alliance between educators and the business community, is challenging high school students to master a set of academically rigorous courses that will better prepare them to succeed in college, in the workplace and in life. This is a simple, low-cost, high-impact approach to motivating high school students to take rigorous coursework, but, as the record shows, it works.

In community after community -- urban, suburban and rural -- the State Scholars Initiative is doubling and tripling the rate of completion in lab science and higher math courses. In the Houston Independent School District, where almost 80 percent of the children are economically disadvantaged, the Initiative helped increase the number of students completing a defined set of rigorous courses from 18 percent of graduates in 1999 to 70 percent of graduates in 2003. In tiny Graham, Texas, population 9,000, the percentage of students qualifying as Scholars rose from 11 percent in 1999 to 75 percent of the Class of 2002. Scores on standardized tests rose, too.

The key ingredient was business people taking a lead role in drawing a clear picture of the opportunities that await young people who work hard and complete the right courses in high school. Armed with facts and a roadmap, kids started signing up for tougher courses, sometimes despite the apprehensions of parents and teachers, and applying themselves to more intensive studies instead of throwing away their senior years.

Their success bred higher expectations. More business people volunteered, more parents and teachers provided encouragement, more students signed on the dotted line, and now the very culture in participating high schools is changed in remarkable ways.

It is incumbent on our industry, where customer expectations are set especially high, to foster a culture of achievement among as many students as possible, from as diverse a population as possible. Only if we make sure that all U.S. high school students complete a rigorous sequence of courses will America be guaranteed to have the imagination and intellectual firepower needed to anticipate and solve customer problems and inspire progress. We need to encourage all students to set their sights high and complete at the very least math through Algebra 2, the three lab sciences -- biology, chemistry and physics -- four years of English and two years of a language other than English.

Student discipline and self-esteem that derive from heightened expectations will not only provide businesses with better-prepared workers, but more important, will give students the tools they need to enjoy more fulfilling careers and lives. They will be less likely to require costly remediation and more likely to be productive citizens who contribute to our companies, our communities and the broader economy. The investment we make in encouraging students to acquire a solid academic foundation during high school pays incalculable dividends.

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