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Computer Giants Look to Students

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Jackson, Wyo.

Albert M. Storrs, the principal at Jackson Hole High School here, remembers vividly the day two years ago when seven of his students were certified to manage Microsoft computer networks as entry-level technicians.

The whole school celebrated as if the football team had just beaten its biggest rival.

"When students started passing that exam, there was more high-fiving than I've ever seen," Mr. Storrs said.

The seven students who passed--plus two who didn't--were the first nine participants in the Microsoft Corp.'s first-ever high school training program, begun in January 1996.

Mr. Storrs said that when he describes to other educators how "genuine joy" spread throughout his school's halls that day, "they want a piece of it."

Many have taken his advice, either through the Microsoft program or others like it that have been created in the past two years.

The Redmond, Wash.-based Microsoft now has 290 high schools participating in its computer-networking training program. Novell Inc., a competitor of Microsoft's based in Orem, Utah, has 159 high schools in its own program. And San Jose, Calif.-based Cisco Systems Inc., which specializes in network routers and switches, has 164 high schools or districts involved in what it calls Cisco Networking Academies.

The Microsoft and Novell programs focus on how to keep a network running smoothly, while the Cisco program focuses on how to design and build a network.

Company representatives say the programs are needed to increase the pool of people who know how to support their products wherever they might be in use.

"If we can't support our software, our sales would be inhibited," said Kent Christensen, the academic-programs manager for Novell. "We can hire 500,000 technical-support people, or we can go out and train people to support their own networks."

Kevin Warner, the senior manager of the education market development group for Cisco Systems, said his company originally developed its training program to help fill schools' technical needs.

"The nice benefit," Mr. Warner said, "is there are going to be tens of thousands of students who will be able to get jobs."

Most educators and students give the programs high marks.

Denise Jackson, who teaches Microsoft networking at Jacksonville High School in eastern Texas and is training other teachers throughout the state to do the same, said the program gives students independence in fixing their own computer problems--what she calls "the ability to control the box."

"No matter what error occurs, no matter what problem you face, you have the thinking skills and understanding to fix the problem," she said.

Eighteen-year-old Brian McKeon, a networking student at Howard High School of Technology in Wilmington, Del., said his success in passing five of the six tests required to become a Microsoft "certified systems engineer" helped him get a part-time job setting up a local-area network for a Delaware trucking company. So far he's put in 30 hours building and maintaining the network, at $20 per hour.

"I really didn't know anything about computers before I started the certification classes," he said.

'Cogs for the Machine'

But some critics say educators should be wary of large computer-related companies that want to teach high school students about their products alone.

"If these companies got together and put together a more generic information-technology curriculum, they would be serving their interests better in the long run instead of using this as a breeding ground for new recruits that understand their products," said Bob Chatham, a senior analyst for Forrester Research Inc., a Cambridge, Mass., company that does research on information technology.

Networking training programs "provide cogs for the machine, but you're not producing creative thinkers who know how to use technology," Mr. Chatham added.

Other experts on educational technology, while supportive of the training programs, tempered their remarks with advice for schools on how to implement them.

Thomas H. Howell, a program director for the division of undergraduate education at the National Science Foundation in Arlington, Va., said company-specific certification programs at the high school level are "commendable, as long as they don't lead the student to believe that's all there is."

At the least, he said, teachers should introduce students to computer products that have the same functions as those that the students are studying in depth.

Some high schools have addressed that issue by broadening their certification programs beyond a single company's product line, either by offering classes for a couple of different certification programs or adding materials to the company-specific programs.

"It doesn't do any good to turn out a kid who only knows one thing. It shortchanges the kid," said Larry Wilson, a technology teacher for the 198,000-student Clark County district in Nevada.

Willard Daggett, the president of the Albany, N.Y.-based International Center for Leadership in Education, agreed. "We should be careful not to channel students too early," he said. "The reason the vendors want to do this is that once the child gets used to that [vendor's] system, that's what they want to use once they get out of school. We just have to be aware of that."

Salary Prospects

Some educators also caution that students who go through the training programs shouldn't necessarily expect the high-paying jobs that computer companies are touting.

A February press release from Cisco Systems, for example, quotes Vice President Al Gore as saying, "Cisco's Network Academies program gives kids a first-class ticket to a high-skilled, high-pay job."

The release continues, "Students who complete the four semesters of the specially developed curriculum and certification testing are ready to begin working in the IT [information technology] field with an estimated starting salary of $35,000-45,000 annually."

A January press release from Microsoft on its training program says the average starting salary for someone with the corporation's entry-level certification is $57,300.

In fact, the companies have almost no information on how much the high school students in their programs are earning, largely because most of them aren't yet in the market for a full-time job.

Mr. Warner of Cisco Systems said he's convinced that high school graduates will be able to pull the same salaries as adults for their networking skills.

"Based on what we're hearing from the Fortune 100 companies, they're not seeing these people as discounted labor," he said.

Nancy Lewis, the general manager of worldwide training and certification at Microsoft, said she has heard of students making more than $50,000 a year coming out of high school with computer-networking skills. But she added: "Is it widespread? No."

An informal survey of teenagers who completed the companies' programs found that they typically earn between $20,000 and $30,000 a year right out of high school.

The salary depends partly on where students live. In Wyoming, where Microsoft runs programs in 10 schools besides 645-student Jackson Hole High, no one can point to students who have made $50,000 a year or the equivalent per hour in part-time jobs. But students here credit the Microsoft program with improving their prospects nonetheless.

Jackson, which has 5,873 year-round residents and whose main industry is tourism, has about half a dozen businesses that hire computer-network administrators. Two of those businesses have hired students from the Jackson Hole High Microsoft program.

Mike Arnold, a member of the original Microsoft networking-essentials class at Jackson Hole High and a 1996 graduate of the school, makes $21,000 working as a Microsoft trainer for Bliss Computer Services in Jackson.

After graduating, he worked for less than a year as the network administrator for Unilink, Jackson's only software-development company, at an annual salary of about $25,000. According to his employer, he did good work.

But Mr. Arnold quit, eager to begin his own business as a computer consultant. The experience was "miserable," Mr. Arnold admitted, as he found he spent more time calling people to drum up business or asking them to pay bills than working with computers. It didn't take much for Franklin Bliss, the president of Bliss Computer Services, to persuade Mr. Arnold to turn over his clientele for a payment of $2,000 and to come work for him.

"He thought he knew enough that he'd jump out on his own and get rich," Jim Meacham, the Microsoft teacher at Jackson Hole High, said with a smile. But now, Mr. Meacham said, he believes his former student is in a good position.

Most educators participating in the certification programs say they advise their students to go on to college.

"We encourage them to continue their education because you do reach a glass ceiling" with just a high school diploma, said Gina Miao, the career-experience coordinator at Marshall High School Academy in Falls Church, Va., which teaches Novell networking certification.

Lending a Hand

At many schools, students who are enrolled in networking classes also help install and maintain the schools' computers.

That is the case in the 1,850-student Round Valley Unified School District in Eagar, Ariz. Ten students from Barry Williams' Cisco networking class at 650-student Round Valley High School provide technical support for four schools.

"Their role is to make sure things are working--everything from hooking up a printer to installing software to adding memory to computers," Mr. Williams said. "We don't have [hired] technical-support people. We're too small."

George Ward, a senior consulting engineer for Cisco Systems who travels around the country implementing networks in schools, said one of the company's main goals with the training program is to give students responsibility on school networks.

He said he encouraged Cisco to start a training program for high schools after seeing how many schools lacked technical support.

"I'd go in and design [networks] and build them and leave, and they would crash. There was limited support staff, and even more limited training," he said. "I started looking at the kids and saying, 'We could train these kids.'"

Mr. Meacham, the Microsoft teacher at Jackson Hole High School, doesn't encourage his students to trouble-shoot the school's network because he thinks the work becomes repetitive and doesn't enhance their learning.

But even without that experience, the students can gain a sense for real-life networking, he said. Because the Microsoft classes are geared toward the certification tests, they have forced students to be more responsible.

"In high school, students have the mental attitude that, 'If I sit for the course, I'll pass the exam,'" Mr. Meacham said. "For the first time, they've had to be accountable for what they study."

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Web Resources
  • Read the full text of "Report '97," a report by the CEO Forum on Education and Technology that is critical of schools' efforts to integrate technology.
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