IT Driving the Modern Education landscape

Steve Clagg, CIO, Aurora Public Schools

Steve Clagg, CIO, Aurora Public Schools

“I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.” -Wayne Gretzky.

As my thoughts turn to what my technology team should look like next school year, I put forth my best prognostication skills. How do we staff in a time of an ever changing technology landscape? What new skills will we need? Will we be using PARCC for online assessment after this year? What do I do about a new CFO? Or new strategic initiatives from the superintendent? Or those mid-year projects our instructional counterparts bring to us?

How do we as school district technology leaders weave all this together and put the right talent and skills together? How do we ensure our technology will be where our students need us to be?

 The Denver metro area has reached a 4.1 unemployment rate and school district wages are at least 20-30 percent below market. Each year it is progressively harder to find good candidates for K12 technology teams. Are we facing an IT talent crisis within K12?

Recently I had the good fortune to hear Gary J. Beach discuss his book “U.S. Technology Skills Gap.” A glaring statistic jumped out, which in light of President Obama’s recent announcement about funding community college education, really piqued my interest. In the US, about 48 percent of IT jobs need a four year college degree, but the expectation of a four year degree in hiring is about 96 percent.

I chewed on this statistic and compared my experiences in the corporate world and in K12 education. In my past organizations, the expectation truly was a four year college degree or better. My hiring always targeted at least B+ players with a four year degree and 5-7 years of experience. Prior to K12, I had never experienced technology workers who didn’t have four year degrees.

Being a K-12 CIO changed all that. Inheriting a team of 47 percent hourly workers was a shock. Many of those workers had been in those jobs for 10-15 years or more, didn’t have a professional IT background and were roughly 20- 50 percent underpaid compared to their corporate counterparts. The truth of “do more with less” even echoes through my dreams these days.

Our IT management team acknowledges the simple truth: there is a dearth of IT talent at our pay scales and we are facing a technology skills gap.

“Our IT management team acknowledges the simple truth: there is a dearth of IT talent at our pay scales and we are facing a technology skills gap”

So, how do we attract workers, especially when we need better skills, to handle the explosion of technology in K12? Here are 7 lessons, a K12 CIO learned to be “where the puck will be”:

1. Don’t forget your enthusiasm and desire as a twenty something.

Our millennial generation is willing to work for the wages we offer and after a bit of “how to work” training, are making strong contributions. Make no mistake, the millennial generation takes a different management style than our independent GenXer’s or our team oriented Boomers. But don’t underestimate this large pool of candidates – I have rediscovered the intelligence, lack of baggage and willingness to learn that Millenials offer.

 2. Focus on the middle skills.

 Gary mentions “focusing on the middle skills” in his book. I agree – focus on the skills the job really needs and target your candidates for these skills. You may find yourself shifting some job descriptions to a two year associate’s degree or certifications instead of a four year degree.

3. Fight for and win professional development funds.

 Ignore the naysayers mantra of “if you develop staff with new skills, they will leave for the greener pastures.” We continue to close our skills gap each year and are progressively getting more accomplished, driving IT value into our district. We keep far more staff than we lose with this approach.

4. Hire for attitude and ability to get along.

By investing in professional development, we know we can teach the technology skills needed, which alters our target candidate skills. We also have a challenging exit process, so it is imperative we hire the right person the first time. Today’s IT candidate must have the right bedside manner and interact well with customers.

5. Create an environment where staff desire to stay.

What about those greener pastures? We have found that training our staff to leave and creating an environment where they want to stay is a better approach than not investing. Our people appreciate our willingness to invest in them and we have only lost one person to greener pastures in the past 4 years.

6. Provide meaningful work.

 How do you create an environment where people want to stay? I am a fan of Charles Deming and TQM. However, one outcome of TQM is breaking down processes so they are so simple a rhesus monkey could perform them. Let’s face it, most of us prefer more meaningful work. We move as much meaningful work to our staff as possible, which often means letting them drive. It may sound easy, but it can be like letting your 16 year old drive – white knuckles!

7. Take the long view.

 In K12, things move at the speed of light and at glacial speed simultaneously. Build your team for the short term tactical needs, but hire lifelong learning candidates who will be able to adapt to new skills and new technologies 2-5 years in the future. “If you think in terms of a year, plants a seed; if in terms of ten years, plant trees; if in terms of 100 years, teach the people.” ~Confucius

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