Private Sector (commentary): The 'new' liberal arts

Computer science or engineering combine with other disciplines in many jobs

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Technology is creating new markets, easing our lifestyles and changing the way businesses operate. It also is propelling the majority of the world's business and social interactions. From the suburbs of Pittsburgh to the villages of Botswana, technology is enabling new ways for people to craft a more interactive and productive global society.

Today's global society also is shifting the pyramid of economies, jobs and skills. Traditional agriculture and manufacturing jobs are leveling off, and the 21st century is seeing the rise of a new breed of jobs in the services sector. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that more than 4.6 million service-related jobs will be created in the period from 2004 to 2014. Currently, services comprise more than 70 percent of the world's economy. In Pittsburgh, the average number of job openings for IT professionals has increased by 67 percent from 2004 to 2007. That's more than 20 percentage points higher than the national average.

During the 20th century, education drove steady increases in work force quality, which meant that workers entering the work force were more educated than those that they replaced.

According to a report issued by the U.S. Council on Competitiveness, the growth rate in the number of educated workers entering the work force is beginning to flatten. Between 1980 and 2000, the increase in the number of workers with more than a high school education was 19 percent. For the next 20 years, the growth in educated workers is expected to slow to just 4 percent. Indicators point to a mismatch between the demand for higher skills and the supply of skilled workers.

The good news is that some of area's colleges and universities have put a greater focus on cultivating technology skills. For example, IBM is working with schools such as Carnegie Mellon University to build software programming, Web 2.0 and enterprise computing skills. Tomorrow, IBM is hosting skills workshops at Carnegie Mellon to encourage developers, business partners and students to focus on critical skill areas, such as software engineering tools, open source platforms, software testing methodology and "Hacking 101."

However, due to the larger trends of globalization, it is clear that the nature of technology jobs is changing. New "hybrid technology" jobs -- which are rooted in fields such as biology, engineering, health care, finance or mechanics but require technical proficiency -- are gaining mainstream popularity.

Meteorologists, biologists, accountants, physicians or even psychologists who understand how computer systems work and know how to make sense of the data are shooting to the top of their professions. In three to five years, these hybrid jobs will be at the epicenter of innovation and business. Increasingly, our young people will earn their paychecks as environmental engineers, urban architects and information analysts using technology to make a real difference in the world in which they live.

If success in the 21st century is being defined by collaborative training that combines computer science/engineering skills with social sciences, languages, psychology and other disciplines, then IT is emerging as the "new" liberal arts.

Just as traditional liberal arts education includes the study of theology, art, literature, languages, philosophy, history, mathematics and science, the new world view of Information Technology is evolving to include interdisciplinary skill sets.

Here are some lessons that students need to learn, both inside and outside of the classroom, for success in the global economy.

Collaboration across geographies: In order to prepare students to work within a multinational community, we need to provide them with opportunities for global collaboration. Online social networks such as FaceBook and Twitter provide students and teachers with forums for an exchange of ideas and information. These online relationships provide opportunities for classrooms to connect and share different perspectives.

Immersion in new media: Businesses are increasingly putting social media tools to work inside their organizations for increased productivity and profits. For students to consume and create multimedia messages, they should learn how to create online video, podcasts and blogs. According to research from Robert Half Technology, an IT recruiting firm, CIOs anticipate a 15 percent increase in the need for IT workers with Web 2.0 application development skills in 2008.

The power of critical thinking: To prepare students for hybrid jobs, educators need to provide them with opportunities to solve complex problems that require critical thinking. Instead of providing students with step-by-step directions, we should be encouraging them to seek out new solutions through communication and collaboration. More tests should feature essays instead of multiple choice questions to promote thought-provoking responses.

A passion for citizenship: Today's workers will have power to make a real impact on the world -- helping companies reduce their carbon footprint, helping cities reduce pollution or helping people make sense of the explosion of data. Educators should empower 21st-century students to embrace an attitude of citizenship.

Technology can be used to change the world -- from fighting world hunger to beating diseases to promoting environmental conservation. Students should be challenged to think outside of the box and start dreaming up solutions with the tools around them.

Technology can be used to innovate and differentiate. Job seekers and college students who are flexible in the face of all these changes can build a portfolio of skills to compete and win the coveted, higher level jobs.


Ted Roberts is IBM's service delivery/senior location executive for Pittsburgh.


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