Getting St. Louis IT on the Dean's List

Published in: St. Louis Commerce Magazine
Author: Bill Beggs, Jr.

Someone once referred to the Mississippi River and environs as "the Third Coast." If that's the case, St. Louis is smack dab in the middle, between other big river (coastal) cities such as Minneapolis and New Orleans. This puts our information technology fortunes in perspective, if you consider the popular mythology that nothing much happens in this sector anywhere but on the East or Left coasts.

Those in the know would encourage the great unwashed to take a closer look at what the St. Louis IT Coalition and business incubators, plus civic and corporate forces throughout the region, are doing to raise the bar for this tech sector on both of our coasts; i.e., the east and west banks of the Mississippi.

None of this would be possible, of course, without a strong commitment from colleges and universities throughout the region.

We surveyed a sampling of the business and technology "brain trust" deans, chairs and other leaders at college and university business schools in Missouri and Illinois to get their perspective on what's happening, and what the future holds, here on the Third Coast.

Here are the questions we posed:

What can higher education in St. Louis do to attract IT talent to the region?

Since many IT grads tend to move around as they move up, how do we keep them engaged so that they remain here rather than leave for a job on a coast?

How is the incubator environment and the corporate community rising to the challenge of IT workforce development and retention? Are we indeed "on the Dean's List"? If not, how do we get there, and where do we stand now in comparison to other IT-savvy regions of the country?

Here's what our sources had to share:

Keith Womer, Dean

College of Business Administration University of Missouri-St. Louis

Our focus is on educating the St. Louis workforce. Our undergraduate, masters and Ph.D. programs in information systems are focused on the intersection between business and information technology. Some of our students start with us right out of high school, but others come back for a new focus on their career.

At the undergraduate level, we mostly are involved with developing IT talent for St. Louis rather than attracting it. One message that we all need to deliver is that IT is a good starting point for a career in business. We also need to communicate the message that there are good, entry-level IT jobs in the United States. Of course, there is a great deal of messaging on the other side of this issue to counteract. The UMSL Summer Camp Extreme IT is one of our efforts to combat this perception.

The need for professional IT project managers is great and, in my opinion, this is the crucial next step for many IT professionals. We support the search for IT talent by providing the graduate programs in business and information systems that permit IT professionals to move from implementing technology to managing the IT workforce. UMSL's Masters of Information Systems program and the Information Systems emphasis in our MBA program provide this crucial link for those who are serious about an IT career in business.

In addition to the availability of graduate education, to retain IT talent, St. Louis must provide a work life that is second to none. Companies that are regularly ranked among the best places to work have little trouble holding on to their talent in IT or in other fields. On the other hand, a company that quickly moves to outsource its IT work whenever the economic wind changes will find that holding onto IT talent is very difficult indeed. I think the key to retaining IT talent is demonstrating that the company is willing to invest in talented people. This is not just paying market wages, but committing to education and corresponding career development. I believe that progressive companies are doing this, but we need more of them.

At UMSL, IT Enterprises (ITE) is designed to be a major force in translating innovative ideas into thriving businesses in the fields of information technology and life sciences. To succeed in this mission, the enterprise offers state-of-the-art infrastructure and access to the expertise of university faculty and students. In concert with the University of Missouri's fourth mission, ITE fosters innovation to support knowledge-based economic development. ITE provides all of the services that IT entrepreneurs need to start successful companies.

I believe that we have the programs and opportunities that are necessary for St. Louis to be among the very best places to pursue an IT career. What we need to do is to let young folks know what the entry opportunities are and to work diligently to insure that there is a clear career progression from those entry positions to the very top.

Benjamin Akande, Dean

School of Business & Technology, Webster University

Business schools should seek out young men and women who have demonstrated potential and interest, and invest time and resources to develop them. Retaining talent can only happen if there exists a formalized collaboration between B-schools and the IT sector.

St. Louis' effort through the IT Coalition and RCGA is gradually yielding fruit. St. Louis has a plan and is committed. In time, we will own a piece of the sector.

Craig Klimczak, Vice Chancellor

Technology & Educational Support Services St. Louis Community College

High-paying IT jobs still in high demand require years of educational preparation and experience. Further, IT technologies continue to rapidly evolve thus demanding lifelong learning. Higher education institutions need to continue to evolve their IT educational programs to remain current with the changing technologies and create new non-traditional professional development offerings. Professional growth and development are often tied to educational attainment, so St. Louis area higher education institutions need to provide this access.

IT grads seek rapid promotion and want to work on interesting projects. The St. Louis region needs to develop a critical mass of IT development project opportunities and embrace a mobile workforce. St. Louis IT culture is one of long-term employment focused around systems maintenance. Shifting our thinking to look at IT projects as construction projects opens the door for a more mobile IT talent workforce. As one project ends, those skills can move to the next organization in need of them.

For this to occur, IT organizations need to act more collegial by sharing their future opportunities with other IT organizations that are wrapping up projects. Local organizations such as the IT Coalition and St. Louis Works are promoting these relationships among local employers. Further, both are working to inform the IT workforce of opportunities.

The incubator environment thrives on the mobile talent workforce and thus provides the opportunities to work on new and interesting projects. These opportunities keep the best and brightest engaged and working in our community. Retention needs to be viewed as retention in the region, not necessarily with the same company.

We need to rally business and community support around the efforts of the RCGA, St. Louis Works and the IT Coalition. These groups are promoting the region's IT talent base and are working to build the collegial environment that will sustain a mobile yet engaged IT workforce. Creative people need a variety of opportunities to stay fresh and engaged.

Robert Talbott, Professor

School of Business and Entrepreneurship Lindenwood University

To attract IT talent to the region, we need to offer educational courses in the latest technology and to show the benefits thereof. Moreover, we need to show how critical IT is to our region, how St. Louis has a large number of companies that rely heavily upon IT, and that there are abundant opportunities to develop a hearty network among IT professionals in the region.

A primary concern for IT workers is staying current in their field. To keep them engaged, they need to be provided with opportunities to improve themselves and to update their skill sets. In addition, competitive salaries and bonuses are still quite important, along with opportunities for promotion and development and generous accommodations for personal and/or family time.

Regarding IT workforce development and retention in the corporate environment, I feel that the corporate community could do much in the way of improvement. IT workers move from one job to the next based upon the lack of job satisfaction, which is abundantly recognized not only in the job network but also in scholarly articles. This lack of satisfaction can come from varied sources: weak promotional opportunities, overwork, poor development opportunities, poor compensation/raises, family-work imbalance, and the like. Rising to the challenge of IT workforce development and retention is achievable but may cut into the short-term bottom line. Consequently, organizations must weigh any short-term losses against strategic long-term gains. Retaining IT workers means retaining an organization's IT and (to some extent) business knowledge, prized company assets.

We are striving to be a recognized region, though some will remain dominant for decades: e.g.; Silicon Valley, Redmond, Wash., etc. St. Louis has had numerous IT breakthroughs, but to become a top player, the area will need considerable, highly visible breakthroughs in IT across different industries, along with strong entrepreneurial IT ventures. Moreover, the promotion of our existing IT base: i.e., the IT workforce and the existing companies that rely heavily on IT and are industry leaders' is vital. In addition, area universities must continue to develop research and to offer courses in leading technologies, from academic and practitioner standpoints.

Kian Pokorny, Ph.D.

Associate Professor & Chair, Division of Computing McKendree University

Over the past five years at McKendree we have experienced approximately a 40 percent decline in the number of students choosing one of its computing majors, compared with the 70 percent decline in undergraduates choosing a computer science major nationwide. Many of those entering the first course are unprepared for computer programming, which has traditionally been the first introduction to the computing disciplines for entering college students. High schools do not have a uniform curriculum in computing and students do not understand what career opportunities exist in IT.

We have taken several actions in recent years that have had a positive impact. First, we diversified our degree programs. In the past, we had the traditional majors in Computer Science and Computer Information Systems. Now we have added new majors in Information Technology, Interactive Media and Computational Science. These new majors provide options for students that help to initiate the inquiring process for many students. They begin to realize that there are many career paths in the IT field, not just solitary confinement to a cubicle as a programmer.

Secondly, we have restructured our introductory courses to allow students to experience a larger view of the IT world in their first year of college. The first semester course goes beyond computer programming to introduce topics in database and network administration; computer architecture and organization; software engineering; artificial intelligence and game programming; and careers in computing. Students begin thinking about the vast career options in the IT world and receive an overview of topics to come if they choose one of the computing majors.

These two strategies have enticed new students who would not have been interested in the rigid introductory programming/calculus sequence of our traditional Computer Science major or the rogramming/accounting I & II sequence that begins our traditional Computer Information Systems major. Our Information Technology major appeals to those teenage whiz kids that own and maintain enough computing equipment to run a small country. The Interactive Media major attracts students who are visually inspired. Game programming is the big pull for this one, but also students are reminded that simulation software and scientific visualization also fall under this category. Our Computational Science major allows students to incorporate areas of application in the degree program. Students can specialize in areas such as biology, chemistry or economics and finance allowing them to experience how integral computers are in helping people in the world solve difficult problems. We continue to maintain strongest enrollment in the CS and CIS majors.

The bottom line is that we have recognized that the student population has changed over the past 10 years as has society's use of technology. Students are not just interested in computers for the sake of computers. Heck, everyone has one. Students want to do something important with their lives. They want options that impact society. One of the goals of our new programs is to show how computers and information technology helps solve the difficult problems the world faces.

Gary Giamartino, Ph.D.

Dean and Professor of Management School of Business, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville

Is there an IT talent "deficit" in the region? I've heard folks claim that, but I have never seen any data to support the notion. I think we are growing splendid IT talent in the region, now.

Let's think about what resources we have in the area: major universities that engage in research and teaching, offering undergraduate and graduate degree programs that should be able to meet the region's needs. A number of smaller colleges and universities that have undergraduate IT-oriented programs. Several community colleges that deliver technically oriented curricula.

With all those educational institutions producing graduates every year, I am not convinced that there is a deficit in IT talent in the region. We see more indicators that the number of undergraduate students majoring in information systems in our business school will continue to grow as long as students believe that there are productive careers to be made in IT. Much of the media coverage in recent years of IT outsourcing led people to believe that there would not be good career opportunities in IT.

There may not be as many innovative IT companies in this region as one would find in Boston or the Silicon Valley, but there are some outstanding innovative IT companies that have been started by regional IT talent. We should not be so quick to discount the talent and resources that are here. We should do everything we can to continue to grow those resources for the future.

There are encouraging signs that the corporate community recognizes the need to have an innovative, vibrant climate in which entrepreneurial IT companies can grow and flourish. The leaders involved in the St. Louis IT Coalition have demonstrated their support by sponsoring awareness-raising events like the Gateway to Innovation Conference and the Emerging Technology Forum series. Both events stress skill building for individuals, benchmarking best practices of corporate performance, and innovative ways in which companies are using IT to solve business problems.

John Lewington, Ph.D., Associate Dean

John E. Simon School of Business Maryville University

I don't know of any stats to measure the "Dean's List." However, I don't think we are on the list compared to California, Washington State, or the New England area. Our region is focused on biotech...Monsanto, Novus International, Danforth Center, Bunge, etc. A city our size cannot spread itself across too many business sectors.

That said, the region needs to provide programs that deal with the present needs of IT-courses that focus on project management, and the new virtual economy. The Internet has, and is continuing to, increase productivity in marketing and supply chain management.

We have award-winning companies in the virtual space–e.g., Scottrade and leaders in healthcare cost management–e.g., Express Scripts–that are both dependent upon cutting-edge IT to manage their businesses.

Washington University and Saint Louis University both have large entrepreneurship research grants and programs. There's always money for great ideas.