The Employability Puzzle! How to launch into IT or any career

Yesterday I took part in a discussion with the instructors and administrators at a local technical college. The big question: How do we create curriculum that prepares our students for a job upon graduation? How do we make them employable?

They are, as it turns out, not alone in asking this question.

Yesterday I read, and shared, an article by Sharon Florentine at CIO.

Class of 2017 may be in for a rude awakening

The article discusses research showing a disconnect between how prepared graduates believe they are and how prepared recruiters believe they are. 91% of college graduates believe they have the necessary skills to get the job they want while 98% of recruiters say college grads DO NOT have the necessary skills. Danger Will Robinson!

Queue wailing and gnashing of teeth.

Lack of Skill is NOT a New Problem

We’ve seen this all before, haven’t we?

The past several years has revealed this disconnect many times over. In articles, news reports, and in my direct conversations with aspiring technologists. The graduate bemoans the lack of available jobs and the, seeming, catch-22 of, “I need experience to get a job and I need a job to get experience.” And clients – employers – are painfully aware that they cannot find the necessary talent.

I remember when my first article on IT careers was published, “Why Technologist Must Learn To Speak Business” – I posited that most college grads were woefully unprepared to jump into a technical job. It hasn’t gotten better and may have gotten worse.

Prior to that, I was consulting for Sebastian Haircare. I remember a bunch of interns came in from Pepperdine Business School. They were all graduating from the MBA program. We were doing an SAP implementation (read: nightmare). I was tasked with re-building the network and helping move data between systems. Yes… my stuff worked. 😉

One of the interns and I got into a discussion. He wanted to be a technical consultant and had taken an Information Systems focus as part of his schooling. He was wondering what it would take for him to come work for me. I asked what type of technology he had worked on or if he had any projects he could discuss.

The short answer, no. He had no tangible skills that could be used as a consultant. He had an MBA in business with an IT focus but nothing that I, or anyone I knew of could use.

In a strange twist, he was hired by an SAP consulting firm.

Later, that same firm was sued by several companies for failed projects, useless (empty) consulting fees, and throwing unprepared bodies at projects to up their billable hours.

Umm yeah, we saw that coming.

My Child is a technical genius and other myths

Ask any parent and they are quick to tell you how technical their child is. But this is often, a misnomer and misunderstanding. They, the parents, are equating proficiency with the use of technology with being technical; their child’s rapid adoption of gadgets and apps.

But there is a HUGE (or as Trump might say…YUGE) difference between understanding and using Snapchat and understanding how to build Snapchat – at least understanding how it and other apps work.

As I told one group of college students, “Swiping right might get you a date or a disease but it is unlikely to get you hired.”

This myth is misleading younger graduates and may be why the situation is even worse today. These young adults have heard they are highly technical when, in fact, they are not!

App and gadget savvy is NOT the same as technical savvy.

One is employable and one simply isn’t! Can you guess which is which?

An anecdote: one desperate client

How bad is the talent deficit? One long-time client and friend, the CFO for a few companies, told me the following.

“Matt… I will pay someone who is good at Excel $35,000 to $45,000 per year.. no degree needed. If someone is great at Excel, I’ll pay them $65,000 plus… no degree needed.”

She’s desperate for talent. Most companies are.

Let’s qualify this. Good with Excel means you understand how to link cells, build formulas with nested functions, format to show data appropriately, etc. Great at Excel includes pulling data from external sources, linking to other sheets or data sources, and complex, multi-sheet/multi-cell formulas, as needed.

Still – with all that said – the path to becoming good at Excel might be three (3) months to a year. The path to becoming great at Excel might be one (1) year to five (5) years. Of course, this requires someone take the time and want to learn it well. No class you take will give you that. An incurable passionate interest might.

The Solutions: Projects & Passionate Interest

This is the second time I’ve met with this same school. In both cases, I told them their students – like all students and particularly those going into IT – must understand their competition.

Their competition is very likely NOT in class with them. Their competition is definitely NOT at the dorm party. Their competition may have dropped out or never walked through the college doors.

Or, they may be missing class or running through the door late.

But not because they were partying or socializing.

Their competition was programming. Up late… not doing homework – but building an app. Creating a solution for themselves or for someone else.

You see, if you are a student in IT what you need to know – and what these instructors MUST convey – is that passionate interest is going to beat four years of college every time. Passionate interest is going to drive someone to work on projects while other students are cramming to complete an assignment for the grade… or so they can get to the party or take some time to hang with friends.

Nothing wrong with the party or friends.

But, if you do not LOVE solving problems with technology; if you do NOT develop “the bug” as some of us like to call it, we are going to kick your ass.

More so, when you go to get a job, the person hiring you, he or she was VERY LIKELY kicking the ass of his peers in school. He or she knows what talent versus theory is.

Sure… they’ll put what degrees and what certifications they are seeking in a job description. But make no mistake, that is just a way to reduce the number of resumes they need to wade through.

They don’t really care about your degree. They don’t care about your certifications. And if you have multiple certifications but no relevant experience, they may harbor disdain for you. Yes, your certifications might work against you.

They do care about what you can do. Can you hit the ground running? Can you help bring this project home?

Intern or do something

If you are planning on going to school for an IT related discipline, you need to start interning from day one. Or before day one.

I’m going to create some controversy here – oh well.

First, if you are waiting for an internship through your school, you may be too late. This is up to you. You can find and/or create the internship  you need. These, self-created, internships may actually be better than those offered by your school.

Second, by interning, I don’t mean a paid position with some big company where you are a glorified paper filer or retriever of coffee and snacks for the day’s meetings.

By intern I mean, work for a company that puts you into projects; trial-by-fire. They hook you up with a technologist who mentors you. Who sits back and lets you pull your hair out as you try to solve some problems.

They may not call it an internship. In fact, they may not even have an internship program. So you will have to seek them out – ask around.

And that is what, to some, is controversial. But only for the short-sighted.

They’ll claim that an unpaid internship is immoral. That you are being taken advantage of.

Oddly, people will shell out thousands and thousands of dollars and graduate unemployable but call it an investment. But if they go to work for a small business – and spend 2 to 4 months, part-time, learning skills that make them wildly employable, that is being taken advantage of.

Am I missing something?

The frustration and joy of discovery

Back when my oldest son was learning technology, I would often try to over-explain projects. I did this to avoid him becoming frustrated by muddling through technology that was new to him. The problem was that no matter how much I explained, there was always the “next” item to work through.

My friend Karen, a long-time technology consultant and business process manager, told me, “Do not rob your son of the frustration and joy of discovery.”

That has stuck with me -whether training my kids in technology or training new technologists or interns.

And that is a critical factor in knowing whether you will be successful in an IT career.

Do you, when faced with a challenge, double-down to solve it? Do you search Google, read forums, and stubbornly put your head-down into the project?

If not, this may be the wrong career for you. You’d better find that thing – that career – that you are willing to put that type of effort into.

Most projects are new

The truth is, most of the projects I work on are new to me in some way. And most of the projects I assign are new to the person I assign them to.

Certainly, as you are exposed to and solve various technical challenges, you can more easily and better solve the next challenge. But the lab you did in school two years ago is irrelevant today. And more than likely, the first official project you work on will be new to you as well.

This is, even more reason, that a passionate interest is THE CRITICAL component to career success in information technology.

The Big Takeaway: The Path & Key to Employability

If you want to be employable, the secret will NOT be your degree or any certifications. Projects you’ve worked on (internships or “doing things for others or yourself”) and passionate interest are the key and the path to gainful employment.


This is too funny not to share. Upon hearing about my meeting at the technical college, my friend Jody sent me this. Enjoy!

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