Computer specialists have a reputation as introverts who feel more comfortable writing code than making conversation, but the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district’s chief information officer looks for a “people person” when adding to her IT staff.
Susan M. Johnson, who runs the IT department for the 132,000-student North Carolina district, says being able to listen and work with district employees and students in a positive way ranks almost as high as technology skills on her list of employee requirements.
“The successful technologist has figured out that technology is such a huge toolbox, if you will, that they can bring a whole lot of different tools to solve the problem,” she says. “You’re seeing that the new breed of technologist isn’t the traditional propeller head, but is in fact a very good business person.”
School technology leaders across the country differ when it comes to the skills, education, experience, and personality they look for when hiring an IT specialist. Some of those differences depend on geography, size of a district, and organization of the information technology department.
· When you have an opening, determine whether someone with a general technology background fits into your department or whether you need someone with specific training.
· Evaluate whether a bachelor’s degree is a priority for the position or whether certifications in various computer specialties are equally or more important.
· If you’re having trouble finding qualified candidates, take the “grow your own” approach by hiring younger employees and providing training.
· Evaluate more than skills. Think about traits such as passion, drive, and a knack for teamwork.
· Since school districts struggle to compete with the private sector in salaries, think of other ways to “sell” the position.
SOURCE: Education Week’s Digital Directions
Johnson, for example, oversees a staff of more than 100 technology specialists who work in five separate departments. When she’s hiring, she is often looking for someone with a particular skill to fit into the area that manages student information, for example, or the group that focuses on instructional technology and the software used in the classroom. She says she prefers a job candidate with a bachelor’s degree—though it doesn’t have to be in technology—and with computer certifications, which can often be obtained through local community colleges or technical schools. Most of the IT jobs in Johnson’s district pay between $55,000 and $75,000 a year, she says.
Looking for Generalists
But in the 6,300-student Cleveland Heights-University Heights district in Ohio, Director of Information Technology Donald-Anthony C. Phillips says he looks for more of a generalist.
With eight full-time staff members and a handful of interns and contractors, Phillips’ department needs new hires who know how to do a little bit of everything. “We can’t afford to specialize,” Phillips says. “We’re too small and our budgets are too tight.”
Pay for IT specialists in his district ranges from $34,000 to $55,000, plus overtime, he says.
Phillips says he looks for some sort of two-year IT training program or Microsoft certifications. But he also looks at the personality of candidates to see if they’d be good fits. “I can buy technology and training, but I can’t buy passion and commitment,” Phillips says. He cites as an example of such engagement one 20-year veteran of his department who started as a high school intern.
“I need someone who is going to show up every day and have a passion and a desire to work,” he says.
Tom Ryan, the executive director of technology for the 87,000-student Albuquerque public schools in New Mexico, says he once required his job seekers to have a bachelor’s degree, but has lately relaxed that condition after having trouble attracting candidates to the IT department.
“We’re all experiencing a difficulty finding people to fill jobs,” he says. “Ever since the dot-com downfall, it has not been a very attractive opportunity for some reason, and schools are seeing a tremendous drop-off in students enrolling in IT courses.”
And even as school districts need to do more and more with technology, they typically can’t pay high wages like the private sector. “This isn’t a very sexy job market,” Ryan says.
So instead of requiring a four-year degree, Ryan now looks for a two-year degree and says certifications—in such areas as networking and database and project management—are more valuable. His district is taking a “grow your own” approach by bringing in young employees, some just entering the workforce, and training them in the fields of networking and programming.
‘A Bigger Mission’
Michael Casey, the executive director of information technology for the 135,000-student San Diego public schools, who manages 120 employees in his department, says his district’s location helps attract plenty of job seekers. “It’s a popular place to live. People want to live by the ocean,” he says. “We joke that we’re paying sunshine dollars because our salaries are not higher than anyone else’s.”
Casey says he looks for someone who can mesh with a team, since most of the work in his department is project-based rather than done by just one person. He says he also values computer certifications. Salaries in Casey’s department range from $40,000 to $90,000 for non-management positions, he says.
Keith R. Krueger, the chief executive officer of the Consortium for School Networking, based in Washington, says he believes it was harder for schools to find IT specialists in 2001 and 2002, but districts continue to be hamstrung by salaries typically lower than that of the private sector. “Schools are good at training and getting people with skills, but they have a challenge holding on to them,” he says, “because once they have their certification or particular skills that are transferable, they’re often recruited to work elsewhere.”
The current downturn in the economy could work to districts’ advantage, however, when it comes to hiring IT workers. “Some people might like a more stable position with a school district,” Krueger says.
But school IT workers do need something special to work in an environment where the customers are students, parents, and teachers, says Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s Johnson.
“The responsibility we have to protect the children is unique,” she says. “You’re kind of on a bigger mission.”
A version of this article appeared in the October 20, 2008 edition of Digital Directions as Help Wanted