This feature first appeared in the Winter 2020 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.
More than ever, technology certifications are changing the way that middle schools and high schools are approaching information technology (IT) education and student training. Students are being prepared to walk into IT jobs and succeed at a high level immediately upon receiving a high school diploma.
Certifications and credentialing have become a driving educational force for many U.S. states as tech firms collaborate with departments of education to meet the increasing demand for skilled labor in the IT and computer science fields. These collaborations are breaking the traditional mold used to create productive tech workers.
In the past, newcomers with IT or computer science aspirations were considered career- and job-ready only after attending a four-year college or university. In 2020, higher education is no longer viewed as being the sole means by which students can obtain the high-level IT skills needed to embark on a successful IT or computer science career.
Building a new IT workforce
Alabama is a great example of a state where education is working with industry to prepare students for high-skill high-demand jobs. The mini-metropolis of Huntsville (pop. 194,585), in particular, is an emerging tech hub that has recently captured a great deal of national attention, especially when it comes to producing skilled cybersecurity professionals.
Employers are in desperate need of job candidates who possess 21st-century tech skills. Russ Willett, who teaches at Columbia High School in Huntsville, acknowledges the need for his students to prepare for IT certification exams. Well aware of Huntsville's burgeoning reputation, Willett has made it a priority for students to leave his program with multiple IT certifications.
In response to a push for even more cybersecurity education programs across the state, Governor Kay Ivey announced in January 2018 the formation of the Alabama School of Cyber Technology and Engineering. This high school, based in Huntsville, will lead Alabama's charge to attract cybersecurity and engineering firms with a steady supply of new talent.
The new school, however, is hardly Alabama's only advantage. Russ Willett and other teachers across Huntsville City Schools, and in neighboring school districts, are already preparing students in networking, basic information security, and advanced security concepts. Savvy teachers are using technology to teach technology, taking advantage of the latest advances in online instruction delivery.
Training with technology
In talking about his program at Columbia High School, Willett said, I have students who already know they want to work smarter, not harder. They just need the training and opportunity. That's what drove Willett to connect with Utah-based IT training and certification provider TestOut. TestOut provides us with an affordable and effective tool for training. That, combined with industry experience, prepares our students to take their first steps in the industry.
We're already seeing the results of our students finding success right out of high school. Their certifications are opening doors that might otherwise not happen for high school students. Huntsville's tech companies are already finding our students to be capable, willing, and malleable; (we are) meeting an important business need.
Willett and others like him aren't waiting around for special schools to be built. The demand for skilled and certified tech workers — which becomes increasingly urgent with each passing year — has been driving educational planning for quite some time.
An assist from industry
In addition to advanced teaching methods and tools, industry partners are becoming a key component of educational success. Companies like Davidson Technology and Torch Technologies have made significant contributions to the new cyber technology magnet school in Huntsville, and these companies and many others will be the direct benefactors of the increase in trained, job-ready students.
The nonprofit advisory group Cyber Huntsville reports that there are more than 2,000 unfilled jobs in cybersecurity and engineering just in Alabama. Industry-education partnerships have an important role to play in helping school programs build the trained and certified workforce that will drive economic growth and success.
Dawn Morrison, Educational Administrator over Information Technology for the Alabama Department of Education, said about certifications, Industry certifications allow our students to not just document what they know, but demonstrate to employers they have the knowledge and skills for even those in-demand, entry-level jobs.
If we can help students obtain certifications, it can be the difference between the low-wage positions and the high-wage, in-demand jobs available throughout our state.
Alabama is just one of many states pushing tech industry certifications for high school students. Most states offer a list of approved certifications students may work toward based on industry demand for their state.
Federal funding can help
With the renewal of the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act in July of 2018, federal funding is available for states to promote and help students obtain industry certifications. Federal funding is an important part of making certifications available and attainable for students who may not otherwise have access to them.
Each state, under federal guidelines, will adopt a unique plan to disburse funding to career technical education programs. In Florida, Perkins V funding helps fuel the Florida Career and Professional Education Act (CAPE). The CAPE Act was created to provide a statewide planning partnership between the business and education communities.
The goal of CAPE is to expand and retain high-value industry and help promote the state economy. Just like in Alabama, Florida would prefer to keep their trained and certified students at home to help expand and grow the state's high-demand IT industry.
Certification helps everyone
Michael Martucci, assistant director for Orange County Technical College in Orlando, understands how industry certifications are vital to his programs. CAPE funding and industry certifications play an important role in the viability of a program. Technology and industry needs can change rapidly. CAPE funding is essential in assisting schools to maintain their programs and keep up with industry needs.
Certifications are necessary for employers to have confidence a potential employee has met the minimum standards established by the respective industry. Students who successfully pass their industry certifications have a high-percentage chance to secure a job in their field — thus, families, industry, and the community benefit.
Throughout Florida, schools and teachers are being rewarded for their focus on certifications. Schools are being graded and a key component of the school grade is industry certifications passed. Teachers are also being rewarded with bonus pay for students who are successful in passing industry certifications.
Teacher bonuses can range from $25 up to $50 per student, depending on the certification. This quickly adds up for teachers and can be a strong incentive to assist students in preparing for and passing certification exams.
Thomas Thoss, an instructor at Orange Technical College, knows how valuable student certification can be in helping students find jobs. Having a student leave our program with multiple certifications opens numerous doors for our students as they seek employment. Helping students understand the role certifications play in hiring and promotion within the IT industry is important.
Students understand that certifications provide a pathway they can succeed at and really go after careers that are rewarding and pay well.
States taking action
In Texas, certifications are more relevant than ever for the secondary educational environment. Chris Jackson, who teaches at John F. Kennedy High School in San Antonio, summed up the reasons for the surge in certification: Certification has found its way into almost every industry for a reason. It helps advance the profession.
Certification helps employers evaluate potential new hires, evaluate employees, market services, select contractors, analyze job performance, and motivate employees to enhance their skills and knowledge. This is what helps to give education, training, and certifications value.
Texas is a great example of the prevailing trend to develop educational career pathways to align with industry certifications. Employers need validation that their applicants are job ready. Just like the departments of education in Florida and Alabama, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) works with industry and education partners to compile a list of industry-recognized credentials, to ensure that students are prepared for in-demand, high-skill, high-wage careers in Texas.
Each year, schools are required to submit data showing passed certifications as part of the school's career technical education program effectiveness. This report is then tied to federal Perkins funding dollars for each program. Educational funding is dependent on educational programs succeeding in getting students relevant certifications.
The adage keeping up with the Joneses is relevant for every state, as economic boards recruit high-wage high-demand industries to their particular state. Every state is looking to help students meet workforce demand by supplying new industries with workers who are ready to step in and immediately contribute to successful business outcomes.
If certifications, IT or otherwise, are not a large driving force in your state's current educational model, then your state is falling behind in the competition for tomorrow's jobs. Also, if you are an employer seeking qualified candidates, the time is now to create educational partnerships to promote the skills required for your industry.
Industry certifications will continue to be a vital part of the secondary education environment. Middle schools are even now entering the certification arena as necessary skills are being pushed into lower grade levels. Technology is advancing at an accelerated pace and both educational and industry partnerships must work together to meet the demands of the present — and the future.