LANSING, Mi – LANSING, Mi (WKAR) - Information technology is one of the few industries that's actually thriving in today's economy. From e-mail screens to e-coli scanners, IT permeates nearly every aspect of our lives. We tend to take for granted the genius of electronic convenience. But educators and employers say we cannot do the same for the human skills that bring technology to life.
The challenge is to fill the gap between those with and without access to technology. In mid-Michigan, that gap translates into lost dollars and missed business opportunities.
At Pattengill Middle School, a group of students sits transfixed before a video presentation. A motorized Lego robot much like the 20 or so scattered around the room crawls across the screen. These adolescent engineers are learning something about flood control.
Then, it's 13-year-old Alex McCarthy's turn. He didn't build his robot, but he is building the program that animates it.
"Well, for sure I'm learning how to program, because really before this, I had no idea how to do this kind of stuff," McCarthy said. "And I kind of want to be an engineer when I grow up, so this is going to maybe help me out with that."
Down the hall, a ghost story is unfolding on paper and a laptop.
You won't see this story at Sundance, or even the East Lansing Film Festival - not yet. But the skills these kids are learning today are the seeds that educators hope will sprout into IT careers tomorrow.
This afterschool program is the work of the Information Technology Empowerment Center, or ITEC. Organizers say there's a critical shortage of qualified IT employees in the Lansing region.
The problem can be traced in part back to middle school, where American students historically underperform in math and science. A lot of kids love math in elementary school. But then, says ITEC executive director Kirk Riley, the feeling starts to fade.
"You will have very few middle schoolers who look at their parents and say, 'I don't like English. I want to stop taking English classes,'" said Riley. "But math? You hear that all the time. 'I don't like math. When can I stop taking math?' We need to do something about that."
The program is tailored to reach at-risk students. Under federal standards, most of Pattengills's students are in some sort of risk category. Household and socioeconomic status are just a couple of factors that might bar a child from accessing the technology skills needed to navigate their way through life.
Riley says if ITEC can ignite a student's passion for math and science, the next goal is to help them hold onto it into their high school years.
Pattengill library media specialist Patti Seidl says while some area companies do engage high schoolers through apprenticeships, she'd like to see more of it.
"I think we don't have those partnerships where those companies could come into our high schools and have those conversations with those teachers and those students," Seidl said. "That seems to be a missing link right now. Not that they don't want it to happen, but I don't know that we're making it happen."
But the digital divide is as much about usage as it is access. Your laptop might be as ordinary a fixture in your home as your refrigerator. But it's a question of whether it's a productive tool used to better your life, or merely a flashy arcade game.
Robert LaRose, a telecommunications professor at Michigan State University, says the usage gap could produce greater divisions within society.
"As we put more and more government services online, for example, then you'll lose out on the ability to take advantage of those," LaRose explained. "And as newspapers go away, you'll also lose out on the ability to get basic information about what's going on in the world."
And there are real economic consequences. There are some 300 IT companies in mid-Michigan, and countless other end-users who employ IT workers. But right now, they've got more jobs than bodies.
"We have in the Lansing area alone over 300 jobs that are now open - in an area with very high unemployment - in the technology sector," said Riley.
A big piece of that growth is expected by summer. Earlier this year, IBM announced the creation of a new global delivery center for computing application services. The center will be built at Michigan State University, with 100 employees slated to be in place by June.
Regional business leaders don't want IBM recruiters to dive into the mid-Michigan talent pool and come up empty. Riley says the IT worker shortage has has put a damper on many local firms' plans.
"And I think the thing that you will hear is that, there was a strategic direction that we wanted to pursue, we didn't find the people at the right time, and therefore we did not pursue that strategic direction, and that has cost our company," Riley said.
Start-ups want to avoid that pitfall, too.
In a bare-bones office space in East Lansing, Joe Ford walks a dozen MSU students through his company's portfolio.
Netvantage Marketing is a search engine optimization company. Ford and his colleagues use IT savvy to get their clients' to the top of the Google search list. Ford says his employees don't have to be programmers, but they do need a good grasp of their core discipline and know their way around the web.
"We're looking for ideally people that have a blend of your traditional marketing and advertising principles and are able to apply those to the world of technology," said Ford. "So as we look at our candidate pool over the next year or so, that's the greatest need area for us."
Information technology is a rapidly changing field. The programs you master today are often obsolete in a couple of years. Employers believe it's more important to have strong analytical skills that transcend the latest software application.
Still, MSU senior Dan Stoller realizes the value of being self-motivated enough to keep up with the trends.
"You know, it's not something that you learn once like an assembly line and just continue to work on it," Stoller observed. "With IT, you have to stay with it, the different systems...everything is changing. So you have to go in and do the research on your own. You know, you can go to the library and check out a book, but books are old."
Spoken like a true millennial...and the kind of life-long learner that tech companies say they need to help propel the economy out of its slump.