IT jobs grow but can’t attract enough women

Mei Yang and Fatma Nasoz are two women from different worlds who excelled in math and science. But Nasoz, from Turkey, and Yang, from China, share one important commonality : They are women in the male-dominated industry of computer science and information technology.

Yang, an associate professor in UNLV’s Electrical and Computer Engineering Department, has a research emphasis in computer architecture, networking and imbedded systems. Nasoz is a senior resident scholar of information technology at the Lincy Institute, housed on the University of Nevada, Las Vegas campus. Her research is centered on artificial intelligence and human-computer interaction. Like Yang, she took a liking to computers in high school and saw it as the perfect career choice.

Neither Yang nor Nasoz gives too many particulars about what first piqued their interest in computers, but the fact that the field has virtually endless innovation possibilities keeps both motivated. And as colleges make the pitch to future generations about the great career potential in the IT, or computing, world, Yang said she’d love to share her story.

“I think it would be good for girls to see that I was able to do it,” she said.

Women account for only 12 percent of the computer science graduates in the United States, according to Computing Research Association, a trade group made up of more than 200 computer science or engineering academic departments in the country. That figure represents a drop from 28 percent in 2001, a cause for deep concern.

Some have written about potential influences that may be curbing the drive for women to get into the field. One notable scholar, Justine Cassell, a professor at Northwestern University, contributed to the book “From Barbie to Mortal Kombat: Gender and Computer Gaming.” In the book she noted the diminishing field of video game development oriented toward girls through the years as a possible reason for the decline in females in the IT world.

Gary Kapral, senior vice president of human resources and operations at Bally Technologies, said although his team is always looking for top software developers, he also likes to see women in the game-development mix. Women are in the majority when it comes to looking at the profile of players that use Bally games.

“We do find some better game developers are female,” he said.

Yang and Nasoz said exposure to technology at younger ages will boost creating IT talent in the U.S. overall. Both seem less concerned that women aren’t in the field than they are with dealing with the field’s seemingly desperate talent shortage. Nasoz said there is research indicating that for the next decade U.S. schools will produce only enough graduates to cover 60 percent of the country’s IT industry demand, despite more and more computers making their way into U.S. schools at younger ages.

“Starting in elementary school, we are great consumers of the technology. We have smartphones, are active in social networking. We know how to search for information, but somehow it does not translate into having an interest in being creators and builders of technology,” Nasoz said.

Both women said the recruitment efforts need to start earlier and be more hands-on. Yang said if younger students are exposed to some of the innovation taking shape at universities, it could make the subject more exciting. And showing how that innovation relates to real life is also important, she added.

She said sharing hardware designs coming out of the university and showing how animation can be imbedded into different types of systems are examples of how grade school students can be more hands-on with their computer experiences.

Nasoz points to a tool that came out of Carnegie Mellon University called “Alice,” where students are exposed to programming as well. She said there isn’t enough research out there yet to understand why the IT field is struggling to add talent, but hopes that will change in time.

Job demand, finding talent

Benjamin Gayheart, CEO of Ascent Solutions, feels first hand the talent pinch in the IT world. His company has 30 employees and has been looking for more. Oddly, Ascent is in growth mode largely because a growing number of businesses are cutting IT employees and looking to outsource to companies such as his. Ascent offers everything from basic help-desk support to high-end network designs for casinos and a variety of other businesses.

Gayheart says the most difficult employees to find are what he refers to as “midrange” workers. This is typically someone with a bachelor’s degree and some experience . Locally, this midrange employee can make $45,000 to $75,000 and tends to work on servers and databases, he said. Entry-level workers, or those with some basic Microsoft and Cisco certifications, make $30,000 to $45,000 annually, while higher-end talent that understands virtualization, cloud technology and developing new technology can see salary ranges from $80,000 to $120,000, he said.

The last group is one Kapral’s team is always on the lookout for to help develop new Bally games. And Kapral admits that he is competing nationally and internationally with the likes of Silicon Valley companies, Zappos , Google and other technology giants to get them.

Bally, on any given day, has 60 to 70 positions it is looking to fill, most are IT positions. In the past 12 months, the company has increased its workforce by 9 percent in Las Vegas. It has about 1,850 U.S. employees , about 1,000 of whom are in Las Vegas and another 300 in Reno.

About 80 percent of what the company is looking for is software engineers who have experience with different computer languages such as C-plus and Java, among others. The other 20 percent are more IT networking positions, he said.

Although Kapral always has his eye out for local talent, he said the top talent in IT is often international students such as Nasoz and Yang found at a wide range of U.S. universities, including UNLV and UNR.

“For some reason the best and the brightest in America want to be investment bankers and not engineers,” he added.

As for the midrange-level employee Gayheart describes, not all of them have bachelor’s degrees. There’s no shortage of computer experts making a great living who don’t have formal training, but instead — through curiosity and experience — were able to get the many needed certificates to succeed .

“I’ve seen guys with degrees in liberal arts, and they just love computers, and they can make a good living in it. That’s fine by us. We’ll help train and certify. If you have ambition, that’s the one thing I want to see,” he added.

Where Gayheart may be unusual is that he finds most of his talent locally. He has relationships with UNLV and other area technology schools, but oddly has his best luck through Craigslist postings.

Getting in

Getting into the IT field requires knowledge and important certifications as well. Some companies, such as Ascent, will help pay for certifications with a demonstrated ability and desire to advance and stay with the company.

Jennifer Rowland, owner of independent IT training company New Horizons, which has Las Vegas and Reno facilities, has seen a drop in individuals seeking certifications and an increase in businesses sending trainees to the company. She attributes the shift largely to Workforce Investment Act stimulus funds seen in 2009 and 2010 drying up. But that doesn’t keep her from trying to get the word out about the demand for technical minds.

“We’re trying to focus a lot of people graduating from high school on these careers. The earning potential is pretty much unlimited,” she said.

The school’s CompTIA programs, which are seen as the basic core classes to getting into the IT field, are always busy, she said. But she’s also seeing more training as the result of new Microsoft and Cisco products coming online.

Education for health care IT positions has also been on the rise, she said, as doctors’ offices conform to new regulations regarding patient records and Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act laws coming online in 2014 as part of the Affordable Care Act.

Like Gayheart, Rowland said certifications take precedence over a formal degree. Although getting a certification is important, she also is seeing more and more companies take steps to assure a job applicant really understands the material before hiring them.

“In 2006, if you have a certification, you’re hired. But now companies really want to make sure you know what you’re doing,” she added.

Adam Martin, a faculty member in the engineering and information science division of Devry University’s Henderson’ campus, sees his share of students new to the field as well as others already in it brushing up on skills.

His program emphasizes hands-on training and the basics , starting by having them build a small home or office network and then progressing to more complex tasks.

The school offers a two-year degree in network administration and a four-year degree in network management. But Martin said some students are able to get basic certifications after the first few months and find work while they complete their education.

“Some take a few classes and they’re off and running,” he said.

But Martin and others in the industry also admit that students looking to move up in the industry and attain a higher supervisory position are more likely to seek out bachelor’s degrees to couple with their years of experience.

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