UMass Amherst and Community Colleges Join Forces to Spur Interest In Information Technology Careers

AMHERST, Mass. – Students looking for a ray of hope in hard economic times should consider preparing for a career in information technology, or IT, because employers are looking for new people, according to Rick Adrion, professor of computer science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He says gaining IT knowledge and skills now will pay off in job opportunities in everything from tech support and health care database management to software design and computing research. And, the university wants to help.

Adrion directs a project designed to bring more women and underrepresented minorities into IT careers in Massachusetts, known as the Commonwealth Alliance for Information Technology Education (CAITE). It recently received a $1.9 million National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to extend its efforts for two more years, through 2011.

The new funding also enlarges the alliance to include a total of nine community colleges, two state colleges and four UMass campuses. CAITE programs will now be offered at UMass campuses in Boston, Dartmouth and Lowell, as well as at Roxbury, Bunker Hill, Northern Essex, Bristol, Cape Cod, Holyoke, Springfield Technical, Greenfield and Middlesex community colleges, plus Worcester State College and Bridgewater State College.

“While IT remains a vital industry sector in Massachusetts, IT services are more broadly applicable than many of us realize. They’re crucial to almost all economic sectors, including education, financial services, insurance, biotech, pharma, healthcare, hospitality and travel,” Adrion says. It makes sense, then, that employers are seeking workers who represent the diversity of the population who use these services.

“They know that new and different perspectives are needed if we want to improve the design of all sorts of consumer and service applications” he adds. Thus, “it’s definitely a promising field for people who may have felt that they didn’t have a future in technology, like women and minorities. The fact is, they do. We want to help them find the way in.”

Community colleges are the centerpiece of CAITE because of the key role they play in opening students’ eyes to new opportunities and reaching people who want a new career. They act as a gateway to jobs and further higher education. “Community colleges offer a real opportunity to bring highly capable people into IT education and the workforce who, for a variety of reasons, have been prevented from participating fully in the knowledge economy,” Adrion notes.

CAITE is one of nine national NSF-funded alliances and the only one that focuses on community colleges as a gateway to IT education.

Among other activities, CAITE sponsors career days at community colleges, class field trips and college fairs for high school students and workshops for teachers and guidance counselors. Since the initial project began two years ago, Adrion says, more than 5,000 students and educators in Massachusetts have taken part in such events. “CAITE highlights the educational pipeline from high school to community college and on to four-year programs,” he adds. “It helps to nurture students along the way, showing them a clearer path to their future in an IT career.”

With renewed funding, CAITE leaders plan to focus more than in the past on attracting Massachusetts residents to enroll in IT programs at in-state public institutions and to stay here when they look for employment, Adrion says. This is because Massachusetts residents are less likely to leave and in the long run, they will strengthen the economy in a way that can’t be achieved by recruiting workers from elsewhere, for example.

CAITE’s outreach dovetails with the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education’s work in the MassTransfer program to improve community college transfer options. The program builds on partnerships with a number of other Commonwealth and NSF programs promoting IT, science, technology, engineering, and math education.