I was the typical latchkey kid of the 1970s. Two working parents, very little supervision. I really don’t even remember ever doing homework or lugging a book bag back and forth from school. We were left to our own devices with no parents or babysitter beyond first grade. We cooked our own meals, biked to get where we needed to go and kids looked after other kids. My experience is so different from the super-scheduled overloaded millennials and their helicopter parents and that’s why I’m so fascinated by Generation Y.
In the U.S., IT workers total about 10 million, and about a third of those expect to retire in the next 10 years, according to CompTIA research. A current shortfall of at least 15 percent is expected as hundreds of thousands of IT jobs sit open because there just aren’t enough interested up-and-comers to fill them. To attract more of Gen Y to IT, we have to understand how they are changing it for the good, bad or indifferent.
Privacy: What me worry?
Gen Y is an open-book society. They put a lot out there. They are tracked, liked, friended and tweeted by friends and family, co-workers and marketers. They are a highly sought-after demographic. Gen Y is also much different from previous cohorts in blending work and non-work life into one common stream of updates. If you look at Gen X on Facebook, you’re much more likely to see a wall between work and non-work. Gen Y will continue to rewrite the rules about what is private and confidential about themselves and the organizations they work for.
Death of the desktop
As a Gen-Xer the PC was the focal point of my world. I remember watching with amazement as my father toiled on his Compaq luggable in the early 80s. Creating reports and spreadsheets on a tiny green monochrome screen. My first computer was a bubble keyboard Timex Sinclair that I used to create BASIC. I recorded these programs on cassette tape. Having the fastest and best computer was a badge of honor and using the most cutting edge programs and games was a race. Gen Y did not grow up with the PC as the center of their world. They don’t look at the PC as a productivity tool. They only know it as a communications tool and an entertainment platform. Mobile phones and tablets have usurped the PC by a rapidly gaining margin. That has dramatic implications for the PC market and for the high-priced peripherals connected to them.
Where are all the geeks?
A geek is a fan of gadgets, is an early adopter and wears ironic T-shirts. A nerd is introverted and more likely to own a PC instead of a Mac. When I was a kid there were a lot more geeks. We tore things apart to see how they worked. We built things like the Heathkit color TV or the Radio Shack electronics toolkits. Gen Y has grown up with products that didn’t need as much tweaking. Cellphones, notebook computers and now tablets weren’t things you had to build. They come ready to go and are often disposable. The IT industry was built and driven by geeks and needs them to succeed in the future. It’s a challenge, however, when the geek heroes of today are all software programmers.
It’s about the software
Knowing at least a little code has never been more important to being successful in IT, and the trend is increasing. The unemployment rate for programmers is basically zero in any part of the country and people who are strong in mobile platforms can write their own ticket. I’m a coder and I don’t think I’ve ever had more fun than creating a working program from scratch that solved a problem or created an opportunity. For IT to attract enough talent the hardware geeks of the world need to embrace their inner programmer and not keep a distance between the two.
Skills shortages will get worse
We’re looking at a 15 percent (and growing!) skills gap. We don’t have enough kids coming into IT or looking at it as a long-term career. The industry has done a very poor job of communicating all the great opportunities that exist in IT: the career path, the ability to stay relevant and being able to combine IT and business acumen in management roles, etc. If we don’t change the trend, we’ll be in the same boat as skilled trades like carpentry, electrical and plumbing. And we also need to communicate having a successful IT career does not require loads of debt and a four-year degree.
How we train our IT workers
Seven areas that need to change:
Gen Y and the IT workplace
- Make IT cool again: Get our geek back on and talk about the broad diversity of opportunities
- Teach IT solutions: IT is not just discrete disparate systems but an integrated ecosystem
- Involve IT employers: It’s amazing how out of touch our educational system is with the needs of employers particularly at four-year universities
- Teach IT through teamwork: Getting things done in an IT shop is all about teamwork, communication and project management
- Software is IT, too: Have code be a part of the curriculum
- 10 percent of IT is cutting edge: Make sure you’re exposing students to cutting-edge platforms to keep them engaged
- 25 percent of IT is security: Teach all IT with cybersecurity as the underlying priority.
If you don’t have flexible workplace rules today, get them in place. Gen Y is making career and workplace decisions based on the kind of collaborative environment you foster, your rules for Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) and social media and the mission you’re pursuing. They want to be part of decision making, consensus building and made to feel special. You have to understand the strengths Gen Y brings to make your culture better for everyone.
The idea of having a work device and a personal device is foreign to Gen Y. They don’t see the distinction between personal and corporate data. Solutions are emerging to make this easier but they still seem very controlling and perpetuate a sense of mistrust between an employee and an organization. I heard a story about an organization that set up a wireless network in their offices after they’d been very hesitant. In the first days they polled the network for devices they found more than 60,000 devices had accessed it. They only had 15,000 employees! The huge number of personal devices being brought into the workplace and connected to networks and used for work was astonishing.
Death of brands?
Remember last year how shook up the media wanted us to be about the death of Twinkies? A venerable brand from our youth was going the way of the dinosaur. How would we ever make out? I can’t imagine that melancholy setting in with Gen Y. They’ve grown up in a hyper-marketed world of brands and companies popping up from no where to become something and then overnight dying a quiet death. They’ve also been born in the cloud where the hardware is not as exposed to them. Do they care what kind of servers Dropbox uses or how Amazon powers their cloud? The brilliance of Apple as a brand has obscured the mostly downward trend in the importance of IT brands. Gen Y doesn’t seem too attached to anyone in particular and is prepared to jump at a moments notice.
Gen Y has grown up in a world of disposable low-cost products. Previously, a PC was something that took some saving up for. The first notebooks and laptops cost thousands of dollars and you used them until they died. The Gen Y world is populated by faster upgrade cycles, more innovation and service-plan subsidized purchase options. Products don’t get fixed, they get replaced.
Gen Y is bringing a lot of positives to the IT world. They are bringing unique perspectives as designers, developers and users of systems. But the merging of Gen Y into the IT work stream will not be without it’s. The best remedy to the challenges is understanding, knowledge and acceptance.
Todd Thibodeaux is president and CEO of CompTIA. He is responsible for leading strategy, development and growth efforts for the association.