Subscribe to Entrepreneur for $5

There's a Big, Untapped Pool of Potential Tech Talent Out There

This story originally appeared on Fortune Magazine

If you worry that the current shortage of skilled IT hires is only going to get worse, here’s something to think about: Among urban high school juniors and seniors from low-income and blue collar families, about 70% say they’d like to pursue IT careers, especially in software development (83%) and installing and repairing computers (78%), according to a new report from Creating IT Futures Foundation, the nonprofit arm of electronics industry association CompTIA.

Those numbers might look promising, except for one thing. Most of the kids who participated in the study, and their parents, assume they need a four-year degree to get a job.

That’s not necessarily so, of course, since “the IT field is more hospitable to non-institutional learning than some other fields,” the study notes. “Though many companies continue to list college degrees in their employment want ads as non-negotiables, other hiring organizations focus entirely on acquired skills and relevant experience.”

Still, the exorbitant price of a college education — coupled with the belief that every IT job requires a bachelor’s degree — keeps plenty of bright, interested kids from even trying to go after the tech skills that could get them hired.

Although about 60% of the juniors and seniors interviewed by the researchers said they aspire to a four-year degree, the odds are stacked against them. The study points out that, among students who were born in the 1980s living in households at the bottom quarter of income earners, fewer than one in three (29%) enroll in college by the age of 19 — and, of that small group, only 32% graduate by age 25 with a bachelor’s degree.

“These are the kids in the middle,” says Charles Eaton, CEO of the Creating IT Futures Foundation. “Often in big cities, you find that there is help from community organizations for high school students who are so brilliant at math or science that they qualify for merit scholarships and, at the other extreme, for ‘at risk’ youth in really desperate circumstances. But everyone we studied was a steady B or C student, and they’re the ones who get overlooked.

“It’s unfortunate for employers,” he adds, “because these kids have so many of the aptitudes hiring managers look for.” About 80%, for instance, rank “learning new things all the time” at or near the top of their career wish lists, while almost as many (72%) mention “helping other people solve problems” as a major goal.

So what can companies do to get more of these kids into the tech workforce? Eaton notes that 94% of students his team interviewed would jump at an internship, especially a paid one — and that employers don’t have to go it alone. Organizations like GenesysWorks connect companies with urban students who want to explore IT careers.“They offer great programs that are like apprenticeships,” says Eaton. “Companies concerned about future tech talent should definitely consider getting involved.” So far, the nonprofit operates in Houston, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Chicago, and San Francisco.

Businesses and high schools can team up too, Eaton adds, to encourage interested students (and their parents) to learn more about IT jobs. One handy tool is CompTIA’s online guide to tech careers. It helps clarify which roles require college and which ones call for certifications that students can earn online or in a “boot camp” — no bachelor’s degree required.

Anne Fisher

Written By

Anne Fisher is the "Ask Annie" columnist & management/workplace contributor for Fortune.