Educational institutions and businesses play a significant role in shaping the future generation of IT professionals. This is even more apparent as they will be the most digitally literate workforce that we will see in our lifetime, and especially true when we examine the local market for application development and demand for wide ranging developer skills. We are currently seeing employers favouring prospects equipped with Java programming skills (which tops the list for 2014). As a result, research suggests business and industry demand and supply for other specific types of developer skills is now out of balance.
A critical role awaits graduate programmers in their future careers. They are set to inherit support and responsibility for mission-critical business systems, many of them written in technology such as COBOL, which is the most widely used programming language across the world. Yet 73 per cent of academics conducting IT courses globally at the tertiary level still fail to have COBOL programming as part of their curriculum. The reason why COBOL is important is because residents in the Western world typically interact with a COBOL system 10 times a day, whether booking a trip via air or rail, through online shopping, retrieving cash from an ATM, or using a smartphone. Specifically, this has been a foundational language within the financial sector for the past 30 years.
To this day, COBOL remains the lifeblood of many organisations as it continues to drive 85 per cent of all major business transactions globally, and supports over 90 per cent of the Fortune 100 companies’ core systems. Proving that it withstands the test of time and still continues to drive commerce in our day-to-day lives, this heritage of trusted technology provides ongoing, as well as steadily increasing, demand for skills to match.
Despite increased collaboration between universities, industry and the IT sector to include COBOL on additional curriculums, the question remains whether the opportunity to educate the next generation of IT professionals is being left a little too late? As both primary and secondary institutions prepare to educate the next generation of software development programmers, it is as important as ever for students to first understand the why, and how, of computer programming, the mechanics behind this technology (which they use every day), and to become better informed through the exposure to a wider set of development skills at school.
Coding in the classroom
Where we teach primary and secondary students arithmetic, history and geography to offer them context to the world they live in, using apps and devices such as tablets and smartphones has already become the educational norm, and yet we have only now begun to introduce coding as a topic in its own right. Not only is it part of many organisations’ back-end IT infrastructures, but also behind the online games that we play. Think about how the game is modelled. Along with a physics engine (that provides simulation of certain physical systems, such as body dynamics), these ‘second worlds’ also operate on various tails of code, ranging from Java to C/C++.
This year, the UK has introduced the need to learn coding as part of the national curriculum, aimed to give primary and secondary students a basic knowledge of computer programming, and is taking steps in order for educational leaders to implement programming theory and practice to keep students, some as young as four, engaged.
Similarly, in Australia, computer programming could soon be mandatory for school children from age eight, pending a key government review as a public-private funding arrangement to spend $23 million training teachers in modern technology is debated.
At a young age, it is important for students to understand the reasons behind computer programming, and how this brings many of our online processes to life today, rather than the what and where. A potential gateway into introducing school children to the world of coding is to base this on their experience of not just online gaming, but also social networking. As the interest from young developers grow and mature in the discipline, a broad range of programming languages will offer greater opportunities in their future careers, and to respond to changing demand from businesses.
According to research by Vanson Bourne, when asked how they felt about teaching COBOL skills, whether or not they taught it today, 60 per cent of academic professors agree that a mixed language skill set is an imperative for today’s developer. For example, skills ranging from the more modern C# and Java languages, to the enterprise-entrusted COBOL would prove highly beneficial to coders and future employers alike.
Without this balanced skills focus, students moving through the education system may miss the unique opportunity to acquire market-driven skills that enable them to meet genuine demand from today’s businesses.
Working with teachers
An important initiative involves immersing the students in application development techniques and mixed language skills earlier in their educational journey. According to James Curran, Associate Professor at the University of Sydney’s School of Information Technologies, it will be no mean feat. In fact, 23,500 Australian teachers would need specific training to support an initiative of this type. The UK faces a similar battle where it would need to train as many as 176,000 educators – 16,000 ICT teachers in secondary schools, and more than 160,000 in primary schools.
At the same time, the commercial sector, by joining forces with the academic community, can raise awareness and help reshape educational content and delivery. Businesses bring real-world evidence of the technology skills needed within today’s IT jobs, and how demonstrable knowledge of these skills can deliver a rewarding career. Some organisations today, including IT vendors, are proactively working with academia in support of this collaborative educational approach.
The rise of new technologies provides the opportunity to accelerate the education process. Modern development tools are available for students to learn programming languages such as COBOL and PL/I, alongside more modern languages of Java and C# – all within the same integrated development environment (IDE). The assumption that training different languages requires separate tooling for each is no longer true, making a broader educational offering more viable than before.
Meeting market demand for specialist IT skills requires a multi-faceted approach. First, the adoption of modern technology will help accelerate learning of key skills. Further, active collaboration between business and academia must also be present to ensure the suitability and sustainability of needed skillsets.
Building the next generation of developers begins with improving the education process. By starting this process much earlier and focussing on the skillsets that business needs today, the education system can more closely match market need and transform the outlook for next generation graduates – equipping them with time-tested and market ready skills for the future.
With almost 20 years of experience as a programmer, systems engineer, and solutions consultant, Ed Airey has a strong understanding of the direction and future needs of the IT Industry, and what will be required by new generations in order to create a successful career in IT. Ed is currently the Product Marketing Director at Micro Focus, an innovative software developer with more than 30 years of expertise, more than 18,000 customers, and over two million licensed users, including 91 of the Fortune Global 100 companies.
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