A handful of students within the business and engineering schools at San Jose State University in California are headed for careers in service-related industries with an expanded set of marketable skills. A specially devised curriculum shared by the two schools includes instruction in such areas as service design and computer science, as well as soft skills electives including leadership and communication.

The university's goal is to help students develop an array of skills that are highly prized by organizations in service-related fields, explains Stephen Kwan at the university's College of Business. For example, he says, "students in the program learn how information technologies can be used to create innovations within all types of service companies."

Kwan says students possessing such versatile skills will enjoy a competitive advantage in their pursuit of promising careers in the fast-growing service sector, which represents some 80 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product. Employers will reap the benefits, he adds.

San Jose State is not alone in offering this interdisciplinary approach, called the Service Science, Management, and Engineering (SSME) program. In fact, it is one of more than 250 universities that provide SSME-related courses thanks in large part to IBM.

It was Big Blue that developed the SSME curriculum in 2003 and that for the past five years has helped university faculties institute it as part of the IBM Academic Initiative - a program that helps accredited schools throughout the world develop a more competitive workforce. To date, the expansive IBM initiative has helped more than 8,500 faculties at 4,000 institutions teach 40,000 courses to more than 2.5 million students, states Director Kevin Faughnan.

Indeed, a growing chorus of business and academic leaders is seeking to ensure that tomorrow's graduates possess a broad repertoire of competencies that extend well beyond IT. "Graduates who want to compete in the global economy need to be innovative and entrepreneurial, with a focus on value creation," says Debra Van Opstal, senior vice president of programs and policy with the Washington, D.C.-based Council on Competitiveness. "They also need leadership skills and the flexibility to adapt quickly as the pace of change accelerates."

The council, an organization of CEOs, university presidents, and labor leaders working to ensure U.S. prosperity, has launched an energetic skills initiative. Similar education and skills development projects are underway within the Business Roundtable and the National Association of Manufacturers.

IBM's academic initiative

Faughnan says the IBM initiative seeks to fill some of the most critical talent shortages in business by instilling students with a breadth of badly needed skills, including technological capabilities. Participating colleges and universities receive no-cost access to IBM's software, courseware, computing capacity, and subject matter experts on a multitude of technology and business topics via the web and face-to-face relationships.

According to Faughnan, the program demonstrates how businesses and universities can partner to address a wide range of critical skills needs. For example, he says, IBM views SSME expertise as vital to meeting this century's major business challenges. "Most economies around the world are made up of services businesses, yet most universities had been teaching in a products and manufacturing context," he says.

In addition, service companies have been slow to adopt IT tools commonly employed by manufacturing companies, says Faughnan. Tools such as computer-aided design and manufacturing systems, inventory management and control, and cost accounting systems are critical to productivity, competitiveness, and quality in manufacturing, he says. A comparable set of tools and skills for the service industry must be developed and taught, Faughnan believes.

IBM knows well the growing importance of the service sector. Once dependent on the manufacture of mainframe computers, IBM currently derives most of its revenues from consulting and data analytics. Within the past decade, it has acquired nearly 100 firms including consultant PriceWaterhouseCoopers.

Even as Faughnan's department chips away at skills-related problems with free expertise and access to software, IBM is providing a more holistic response with its ubiquitous "Smarter Planet" campaign that markets solutions to the world's information problems.

"T-shaped" skills needed

Faughnan is encouraged by the growing focus among schools on the development of skills that meet today's business and IT challenges. It's a formula that stresses depth and versatility in knowledge.

"We think all professionals need to be more multidisciplinary or "T shaped," meaning deep in one or more subjects and broad across many," he says. "Professionals for the 21st century need to possess a combination of skills so they understand business, technology, people, and culture."

Invariably, those requested skills include a heavy dose of IT as the role of Web 2.0 technologies and programming prowess takes center stage. "You can't be an effective marketer today without possessing skills in data mining," says the IBM executive.

San Jose University's Kwan seconds that opinion. "Biology and chemistry students need that horizontal bar just as much as those in business or information systems," he contends. "The 'T' person is not easily outsourced."

Developing such students is the thrust of numerous other academic projects working with the IBM Academic Initiative:

  • The acute demand for mainframe systems engineers means that jobs await 100 percent of students who graduate with that skill set from Illinois State University's School of Information Technology, says Professor Chu Jong. "The use of mainframes is growing as baby boomers retire. But first, we must recruit students and let them know they're needed," he says. Working with the IBM initiative, the school has designed a curriculum for the next generation of programmers - individuals possessing broad computer technology skills as well as mathematics and communications skills, and the ability to think logically and solve problems. The curriculum has been refined with the help of local partners such as State Farm Insurance and John Deere. He says enrollment is increasing as the negative stereotype of an IT career dissipates.
  • Missouri State University is helping prepare students for the technology jobs of the future by working with IBM to provide the latest IT training and certifications. By introducing new courseware around open source and open standards technologies, the university is helping students embrace the concepts of collaborative innovation while also gaining exposure to the IT industry's cutting-edge development tools. The project has led to an increase in job placements from local companies.
  • IBM is working with New York City's Pace University to accelerate IT skills among students to drive innovation among local businesses. The partnership includes a series of IBM-hosted technology seminars, faculty education workshops, and career mentoring by Big Blue's professionals.

The skills gap

At the Council on Competitiveness, the urgent need to expand interdisciplinary skills is highlighted in a broad initiative launched in 2008 to address the country's future prosperity. As part of the "Compete 2.0" initiative, the council will issue a number of benchmarks on skills demands, skills shortages, and the capacity for innovation, and entrepreneurial activity globally. In addition, it is partnering with Georgetown University to roll out a new data system that will project skills and education needs 15 years into the future.

Council vice president Van Opstal says the T-shaped skill set "is emblematic of the need for creativity, problem solving, communications, customer relations, computing, collaboration, and teamwork in the 21st century workforce." The vision behind Compete 2.0 is to help create a workforce that is able and empowered to act on insight and experience, and an innovation system that is continually poised to deploy great ideas.

She says that while every university president "gets" this message, "the world is changing faster than university curriculum." Meanwhile, corporations train workers around the world in skills that reflect their own needs, markets, and priorities, yet "no corporation offers the full toolkit implied by the T-shaped skills concept," claims Van Opstal.

She points to a variety of multidisciplinary initiatives underway, including the Professional Science Master's (PSM) degree, jumpstarted by the Sloan Foundation and now in use by 71 institutions. It is intended for math and science graduates pursuing careers at the intersection of science and business management or the newly emerging specialty that combines IT with other disciplines such as bioinformatics.

Examples include the UConn PSM (genetics, molecular biology, and computational assessment), SUNY Buffalo PSM (computational chemistry), and Worcester Polytechnic Institute (quantitative finance).

Also, "virtually every major research university understands that innovation is occurring at the intersection of disciplines," Van Opstal says. They are creating interdisciplinary research and educational opportunities that cut across traditional stovepipes. Examples include MIT's Media Lab, Georgia Tech's BEMS complex (Biotechnology-Environmental Science & Technology-Molecular & Materials Science), and Rensselaer's Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies (which combines IT and engineering with the physical and life sciences).

At North Carolina State University, programs to promote interdisciplinary education, research, and collaboration create valuable opportunities for students to be entrepreneurial and work with practicing professionals, according to Chancellor James Oblinger. At the school's Centennial Campus, the corporate and government partnership concept is used to enable students to understand not just problems and solutions, but also the process of innovation and problem solving, reports Oblinger in the Council on Competitiveness' 2008 report, "Thrive."

United Kingdom's IT skills

The urgent need to place broadly skilled individuals into the IT workforce is the incentive behind another broad initiative being launched within the United Kingdom. Called the IT Professional Development Program, it was designed by the organization e-skills UK along with leading companies, universities, and training providers. e-skills UK is a not-for-profit, employer-led organization licensed by the government as the Sector Skills Council for Business and Information Technology.

The program seeks to address a major skills challenge within the United Kingdom - helping aspiring IT professionals establish careers in the field when they lack access to traditional entry-level IT jobs. Increased offshoring of entry-level IT functions by U.K. companies has eliminated large numbers of those positions, even as the need for broader IT skills increases.

Following a 10-person pilot at British Airways delivered by U.K. distance learning provider Open University, the full program will begin in October with roughly 100 participants, according to e-skills UK. The University of Lancaster is then slated to join in the delivery.

Other employers participating in the initiative include British Telecom, IBM, Oracle, and Centrica. The curriculum is designed to enable individuals to become quickly productive in a business environment, while also achieving a recognized postgraduate qualification leading to a master's degree. The program's flexible and modular structure is aimed at building a strong foundation of competence in the early years of a career, including an understanding of the business objectives behind IT. Courses cover a variety of hard and soft skills such as technical, business, project management, leadership and personal skills, and change management.

e-skills UK assures that the program will enable all new IT professionals to benefit from the same top-quality training regardless of background or organization. It will be delivered through a blend of face-to-face learning and e-resources, assessment, mentoring, peer-to-peer interaction, and employer support.

"In today's highly competitive environment, people entering IT professional careers in the United Kingdom need to progress to more highly skilled and demanding roles faster than ever before," says Karen Price, CEO of e-skills UK. British Airways CIO Paul Coby says the initiative represents "a milestone in the professionalization of the IT industry."

After completing the e-skills Professional Foundation Program (postgraduate certificate), participants can progress to the e-skills professional specialist options and earn the e-skills professional specialist award (postgraduate diploma). An additional project could lead to a full master's degree.

The initiative builds on previous programs to bolster the IT profession throughout Great Britain. Two years ago, e-skills UK published the IT Professional Competency Model, a sectorwide approach to expressing IT professional capabilities. The flexible model was heralded as a breakthrough in helping employers, educators, and others to communicate using a common language and framework for skills, knowledge, and experience. The model, based on extensive consultation with employers, includes transferable skills - such as business and personal skills - that apply to all disciplines. T+D