Worried about a shortage of workers, Steve Forbes urged colleges Wednesday to beef up the pipeline of technology-savvy graduates.
Before more than 150 local business leaders and University President Mark Yudof at the Marriott City Center Hotel, the former presidential candidate bemoaned the fact that there are more gaps than schools can plug.
“To be blunt, in the last couple of decades, we’re not doing as well as we should,” said Forbes, who is also CEO of Forbes Inc. and editor-in-chief of the magazine with his name.
Sixty-eight percent of information technology companies say worker shortages hamper the growth of their companies, according to a 1998 study by the Information Technology Association of America. The businesses want schools to reduce the void.
“This is not just a high technology business problem,” said Jim Ousley, CEO and president of Control Data Systems. And conference attendees said the solution starts with education.
Forbes said America stands on the brink of a new fast-paced technological era. Colleges need to put more emphasis on technological studies without writing them off as vocational, Forbes said.
With more than 6,000 students enrolled this fall, the Institute of Technology is trying to meet demands. This fall’s enrollment is a slight pickup over the past five years, said Ben Sharpe, IT’s admissions director.
In response to Forbes’ calls, Yudof described a plan to encourage liberal arts students to minor in a technological area like design or digital technology, so they will be more employable in the business world.
IT Dean Ted Davis said the new minor could be available by next fall.
Changing curricula to include sequences of technological courses or minors will produce well-rounded liberal arts graduates, Yudof said.
Plans to transform Walter Library into a $54 million digital technology center would enhance the University’s capability to teach technology to students. But senators cut funding last week for Walter from Yudof’s legislative request; the project is still alive in the House.
Yudof also suggested adding students to existing IT programs. He proposed attracting out-of-state students to technological majors by reducing inflated tuition prices for non-residents.
“We ought to take a hard look at that tuition structure,” Yudof said. Tuition incentives would only be worthwhile if they target specific majors and if enough students stay in Minnesota after graduation, he said.
Within Minnesota, Yudof suggested focusing under-served populations, such as metro-area students not completing high school. St. Paul public schools have a 30 percent non-graduation rate.
“They’re an untapped resource,” Yudof said.
But whether there is a place for them is another matter. At the University, computer science and chemical engineering programs are overcrowded, Sharp said. IT recently stiffened grade point average requirements for upper division applicants and transfer students — turning away students because the programs aren’t big enough.
Both Forbes and Yudof also pointed fingers at elementary and secondary education, saying that public schools do not teach adequate math and science skills and often squelch children’s natural interest in those areas.
“Education reforms are needed or we won’t be able to take advantage of these opportunities,” Forbes said.