And a teen shall lead their ERP efforts

Would you trust your business to an ERP system installed by a teenager? California's Contra Costa County government did, and it paid off big-time.

Putting college or even high school students to work on critical IT projects may also save the ailing computer science programs in our colleges and universities.

The neighboring Silicon Valley counties grab most of the high-tech talent around Contra Costa County; what little remains is often priced way beyond the county's budget. So when Deputy CIO John Forberg discovered that the county's financial systems needed a Y2K overhaul, he turned to one of the few reliable labor pools he had: students.

One 15-year-old proved adept at ERP and wound up building the county's entire PeopleSoft installation. Others worked with Contra Costa's IT department to switch older PCs to a thin-client system (Citrix Systems' MetaFrame) that boosted performance of the new ERP system.

Forberg brought critical projects in on time and under budget. The students received real-life, well-paid IT experience they'd never get in school.

Contra Costa County's approach could cure one of the worst double-edged swords hanging over our industry: a serious labor shortage compounded by falling computer science enrollments and curricula that simply can't keep up with the real world.

I'm not saying every computer program out there is failing; they're clearly not. And a good grounding in basic computer science is certainly not a waste of time. Many top colleges offer up-to-date, well-balanced programs in theoretical and practical computer work.

But they supply the cream of the crop, not rank-and-file IT workers. Humbler schools may dismiss Web development as vocational education. They have trouble keeping up with technology that may rise and die in the space of one semester.

A Middle Tennessee State University study surveyed 186 colleges and universities with undergraduate information systems programs and found that curricula haven't changed much since 1995. The most commonly required programming language? Cobol. Business and management courses were rare.

IT job candidates will come out of those places seriously unprepared. If we can't cajole or fund schools into more appropriate curricula, we'd better come up with serious apprentice programs, à la Contra Costa County, to give these students useful skills. Co-op programs don't reach far enough.

What would happen if universities made a year's worth of hands-on, paid IT practice a graduation requirement? What if corporations and universities combined with governments, schools and charitable organisations to build an internship system that cured public-sector IT shortages while it gave students practical experience and built a labor force that could cope with corporate demands?

I think it could work. I'd love to hear why not.

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