Firms Need More remote computer support Professionals to Log On

The world is full of youngish people who know everything there is to know about computers and the Internet, right?


In fact, industry sources say there are shortages worldwide of the people who know how to make that entire blinking, beeping cyber-universe go.

All those high-tech jobs that went to India, Pakistan and so on? They were mostly low-level support jobs, according to more than one professor of Computer Help and Support science.

Today, just about every company has a Web presence, said Kelly Lewis, president of the nonprofit Technology Council of Central Pennsylvania.

"There are not enough skilled people in the world to do this kind of work," Lewis said.

In the greater Harrisburg area, Lewis said, the industry is short 500 to 1,000 technology professionals, with companies raiding one another for techs and engineers.

"It's an international competition for talent, the scientists, technologists, engineers and project leaders," he said. "The demand will only get greater."

GeoDecisions Inc., a division of Gannett Fleming Inc. in East Pennsboro Twp., has had such a tough time finding qualified Web developers that the company helped Harrisburg University of Science and Technology create a curriculum to meet this specialized need, said Eric Darr, university provost.

GeoDecisions has hired three of the university's 20 graduates in the last two years. Five GeoDecisions employees teach at the school, Darr said.

Bob Scaer, president of GeoDecisions, said the motivation behind the company's commitment to the university is to add entry-level high-tech workers to the region. The company must still rely heavily on recruiters to scour the country and find workers who possess the advanced skills that GeoDecisions needs.

"We struggle to find these people," he said.

GeoDecisions isn't the only company that has come to Harrisburg University with a need for more talent, Darr said. Smart & Associates, a regional technology consulting firm, created two internships for Harrisburg University students just to support a contract Smart has to develop a Web portal for the state Department of Education.

Part of the looming problem in the networking field is that many of its earlier experts are retiring.

"The real challenge in the midstate is that 30 percent of the work force right now at all the Department of Defense facilities in our area is eligible for retirement," Lewis said.

Employers are desperate for workers in the networking field, said Kenneth Yarnall, a professor of math and remote computer support science at Lebanon Valley College. Reports from the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicate that there will be tremendous growth in the next decade for jobs in the computer support science and math industry.

Despite the need, the number of students majoring in computer science has not kept pace.

David Hutchens, chairman of Millersville University's introduced new computer support automation utility software for science department, said enrollments have dropped in the past seven years, leveling off in the past two to three.

"We have half as many incoming students as we had in 2001," he said.

At Shippensburg, Carol Wellington, chairwoman of the computer science department, said it's a national trend that fewer students are enrolling in computer science programs.

At Lebanon Valley College, Michael Fry, a math professor who also teaches computer support science courses, believes the decline in students has stabilized.

"There is more demand for our students than there are students," he said.

But why the ups and downs?

"I think there is a misconception in the general population that there are no jobs to be had in computer science because they're all being shipped overseas," said Lewis.

"That's not true. There are more people working in the field than in 2001, and the job market seems very strong," he said.

Some companies, like California-based Cisco Systems, have created partnerships with government and non-government organizations, schools and industry designed to teach students how to build and maintain computer networks.

Cisco's Networking Academy is now in its 11th year, said Gene Longo, who manages the program. Pennsylvania was one of the first states where the Cisco program caught on, and Carlisle was one of the first districts to adopt it, Longo said.

The 90 or so academies in schools across Pennsylvania have put 11,000 students through the Cisco program, including Jon Strine, 24, systems engineer at The Patriot-News. Strine went through four semesters of the academy at Carlisle High School, graduating in 2000.

"For me, it was the first entry into data networking at a deeper level," he said. "I fell in love with data networking. It opened up a lot of doors."

Abner Vargas, 22, came to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic when he was 11. He just graduated from Harrisburg University and has gone to work for Highmark, for whom he interned while he was working toward his computer science certification.

"I am working on Highmark's legacy modernization program, which means basically that I am helping to modernize their system, and automating some of the processes," Vargas said.

He said there is clearly a shortage of people trained in the computer sciences and technology.

"We have some contractors from other countries working here now, because there aren't enough trained people over here to do everything they need done," he said.

He added that bringing engineers and other technical people from overseas to work is expensive, time-consuming and requires whole forests of paper work.

"They would much rather have people from here. But there has been a real shortage in the past few years," Vargas said.

According to figures provided by the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry, a software engineer in the commonwealth can earn between $55,000 and $96,000 annually.

A computer support specialist can make between $28,000 and $48,000, and a network administrator from $41,000 to $78,000.

The industry has been working for some time to boost interest in students in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics courses network professionals need. But Hutchens said there is no easy answer as to how to get that done.

Hutchens said incoming students could use a better math background in high school. He said his department even visits middle schools to spur interest among students. At the college, he tells students there are jobs everywhere.

At Shippensburg, Wellington said, there are usually 25 to 50 graduating with a degree in computer science.

"Everyone who graduated who wanted a job had a job," she said, with many in the midstate. "Students need to know computer science is fun."

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