(Un)happy Techies Day to You?

By Lisa Vaas  |  Posted 2002-10-04

(Un)happy Techies Day to You?

Late September, and with the tang of apples ripening in the chilling fall air came, too, the yearly call to celebrate Techies Day come Oct. 1.

This year, the chirpy press release sent a chill down my spine. "Mamas, please let your babies grow up to be techies," it read, betraying what seemed like blithe ignorance. After all, what IT professional in good faith could volunteer time to encourage K-12 students that technology is still a better career choice than, say, cleaning tile grout?

But in spite of the crash-tinkle-thud economys effect on the IT job market, techies.com—the job site that founded Techies Day back in 1999—as of Sept. 24 was still extolling organizations and individuals to do things like hold speaker forums and panel discussions, invite K-12 students to workplaces for job-shadowing, form mentoring partnerships, and give students sneak peaks into college tech courses. Cynical journalist that I am, I immediately dubbed this years event Anti-Techies Day, and I set out to discover how dourly Techies Day played out in this time of layoffs, bankruptcies and salary shrinkage.

I am pleasantly surprised to report that, in some ways, I had my head up my journalists pass. Organizations across the country participated with enthusiasm and creativity in spite of the sour IT job landscape. SUNY Upstate Medical University, in Syracuse, N.Y., for example, is suffering from the tight job market, yet it still mustered four analysts from the university hospitals Hospital Information Systems department, who took turns hosting a job-shadowing high school student.

Is it a strain on credibility, to try to sell IT as a career these days? Not for Bruce Peterson, director of Hospital Information Services, although he admitted that it hasnt been a pretty picture lately. "Id like to staff certain activities but have been unable to do so due to budgetary constraints," he admitted. "But the fact that we have needs points to a recognition that technology is important in the health care environment. As soon as we are in a position to acquire new resources, we will be hiring."

And in places like Iowa, where the legislature has cut one-third of the states technology budget for public schools, the non-profit technology organization Tech Corps Iowa this year simply shifted the tone of its Techies Day activities to one that was more pragmatic than cheerleaderish. Helen Struve, state director for Tech Corps, in Ames, Iowa, said her group has turned its focus to supplying recycled computer equipment to schools, in an effort to make up the shortfall caused by the budget cuts.

Tech Corps Iowa this year also steered clear of espousing what was once an industry party line: that IT careers guarantee job security and good pay (a line which was still being promulgated by some Techies Day participants, who are still pushing outdated ITAA guesstimates concerning unfilled IT jobs). Instead, the group visited schools to encourage interest in technology alone, for the pure joy of it, said Struve, herself a retired systems analyst.

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"I believe the number of [newspaper want ad] pages for IT jobs has shrunk by at least 50 percent [in Iowa]," she said. "Its simply changed the slant in which we presented our Techies Day workshops. I felt it would be a disservice to present this introduction to hardware and emphasize that this is the way to a good job. I have instead slanted the session to appeal to the delight that kids have in seeing whats behind the computer when they turn it on and run some programs. And I hope that interest in technology or science or whatever will later reward them."

"Delight." It is a word that lately has been missing from conversations regarding IT careers. Yet it is a job benefit that provides perhaps the best assurance of filling the pipeline with young people so that the industry will not be understaffed in the future, when jobs finally return. One thing is certain: Delight is a more permanent attribute of the profession than are the promises of job security, high salaries and guaranteed jobs—long the sirens call to coax youth into entering the industry.

Those promises have proven empty to many eWeek readers (click here to read some illustrative reader mail), who have found themselves unemployed and underemployed. Indeed, scores of our readers are bitter with disappointment in the IT profession, filled with fear that years of hard work and countless hours and out-of-pocket dollars spent on training lately have amounted to nothing more than a pink slip.

Perhaps on Oct. 1, I couldnt bring myself to wish anyone a Happy Techies Day, but I can wish you all delight. Delight in mastering the intricacies of encryption. Delight in conquering whatever certification requirements face you. Delight in debugging code.

But most of all, I wish you the profoundest delight: that of sharing the satisfactions of your work with the next generation of IT.

IT Careers Managing Editor Lisa Vaas can be reached at lisa_vaas@ziffdavis.com.

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