The following article appeared in the 17 May 1999 edition of Time and is copyrighted by them. It is reproduced here only as a temporary measure for educational discussion purposes.

Wanted: Well-read Techies

by Jillian Kasky

William Martin, a senior at Roanoke College in Virginia, has a handicap: he's a psychology major looking for a job in the new economy.

As colleges and universities send another wave of graduates out into the world this spring, thousands of other job seekers with liberal-arts degrees like Martin's find themselves in a similar bind. True enough, this is an era of record-breaking lows in unemployment. But technology companies, which are contributing the lion's share of new jobs, are simultaneously declaring a shortage of qualified workers. The emphasis is on the word qualified.

It's no surprise that high-tech companies rarely hire liberal-arts graduates. "Our p.r. people, our marketers, even our attorneys have technical talent", says Tracy Koon, director of corporate affairs at Intel. The need for technical expertise is so pervasive that even retailers are demanding such skills. "Company-wide, we're looking for students with specific information-systems skills", says David McDearmon, director of field human resources at Dollar Tree Stores. "Typically we shy away from independent-college students who don't have them."

Fortunately for Martin, some invaluable help was at hand when he needed it. The Virginia Foundation for Independent Colleges, a network of 15 liberal-arts colleges in the state, has teamed up with local companies to bridge the learning gap faced by its members' graduates. VFIC invited 30 companies, including First Union and Electronic Data Systems, to link the needs of businesses with the skills being taught in college classrooms. With grants from corporate sponsors like AT&T, VFIC asked 20 information-technology managers to help its members create an exam, based on the work students will be expected to do in the real world, to test and certify their technological proficiency.

The result, Tek.Xam, is an eight-part test that requires students to design a website, build and analyze spreadsheets, research problems on the Internet and demonstrate understanding of legal and ethical issues. Says Linda Dalch, president of VFIC: "If an art-history major wants a job at a bank, he needs to prove he has the skills. That's where this credential can help." This year 245 students at VFIC's member colleges have gone through the program. The long-term hope is that Tek.Xam will win the same kind of acceptance as the LSAT or CPA for law or accounting students. "To know a student has taken the initiative and passed could mean that less training is needed", explains John Rudin, chief information officer at Reynolds Metals, one of the corporations that helped create the test.

All this begs an important question: Has the traditional liberal-arts curriculum become obsolete? College presidents naturally argue that the skills their schools provide are invaluable. A B.A. degree, says Mary Brown Bullock of Atlanta's Agnes Scott College, "gives graduates the ability to reinvent themselves time and time again...and the knowledge and thinking skills that transcend a particular discipline or time frame."

Martin is finding that to be the truth. "It would be nice to have computer classes on my transcript", he says, but Tek.Xam has armed him with the power to learn those skills on his own -- and a credential to show he has done so. He's now waiting to hear when his job as a network-support assistant for a large Boston firm will start.

View index of teaching-related articles