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Know the Job Market

I tend to answer questions when asked, often without pausing long enough to consider the best wording — or even if I should answer.

This semester, I'm teaching a course that uses Wikis to explore collaboration. The students are struggling with the Wiki format and some of the concepts. You'd be wrong if you thought users of Wikipedia understood how the system functions. I mentioned that installing and maintaining any content management system (CMS) was a good skill to have.

A student then asked about job skills currently in demand. He was told by someone that some specific tools were in demand, while others were not. The tools and skills he was told are valuable are absolutely, positively not highly-valued based on a simple search of tech-focused job sites. And, of course, I said so.

Sorry, but Visual Basic isn't going to land you at the top of the field. (There are still companies using VB for database applications, but C# is a better choice in my view.) And while COBOL is interesting (yes, we teach COBOL and MUMPS) it isn't going to expose you to modern OOP coding techniques. COBOL is still in use but it is not going to be hot career path for most IS graduates.

My blunt assessment of demand: it helps to know C-based languages, basic SQL (there are minor variations), Windows administration, and Unix networking tools. If you want to program, focus on the tools of portable computing: Objective-C (Apple), C# (Microsoft), and C++ (Android). My view, and some disagree, Web skills aren't the "sweet spot" of the job market anymore. Apps rule. If you want a good source for demand in tech, visit Dice and read their talent surveys, which are updated annually in the spring. The link is: http://marketing.dice.com/techtalentdemand/

I should have said that what the university teaches doesn't matter: programming skills transfer. I should have said that the theories are transferable. I should have said many things — but the reality is that employers want to hire people with specific skills. In this economy, if an employer can hire a C# programmer, they will do that instead of hiring someone in need of additional training.

Students deserve the truth. We are not preparing them for the job market as it is or as it will be. We are preparing them for the job market of five or even ten years ago.

We'd like to imagine that employers value the skill of learning — but the reality is that human resource departments will have checklists of keywords. Do you know Ruby on Rails? Are you familiar with HTML5/CSS3 fluid layouts and/or responsive grids? Do you know Objective-C and Cocoa Touch for iOS development? It's all about having the right keywords for a specific job.

And I said so tonight.

Get certifications. Complete free online courses. Do whatever it takes to have the skills companies want. It's not enough for your résumé to state "Familiar with Object Oriented Programming concepts." Which languages? Which tools? Read the local job openings on Dice, Indeed, Monster, and other websites. What do companies and organizations want? Be the employee they will want.

The market moves quickly. Schools need to adapt quickly, too. The tools do matter, even if we wish the focus could be on theory.

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