Finding IT Talent in the Ivory Tower

A number of CIOs are exploring a relatively untapped source for fresh IT talent, even if the prospects can’t tell a bit from a byte: liberal arts graduates.

Eight in ten IT organizations recruit at undergraduate business and IT programs, but only 14 percent scout liberal arts graduates, according to our latest recruiting, retention and development survey. That appears to be changing. While one-third of the respondents say they’re increasing recruitment efforts among undergraduate business and IT programs, 43 percent are boosting efforts to attract liberal arts graduates. It makes perfect sense. Just glance at IT history.

From the late 1960s through the 1970s and into the early 1980s, many corporations began installing their first computers. With the hardware, they needed staffs to maintain the machines, but more importantly, to develop customized programs and systems to meet business needs. Few graduates in those days had computer science or information systems degrees. Many of the people recruited to be programmers and analysts had degrees in such non-tech or non-business disciplines as anthropology, economics, English, history, political science, psychology and even Russian literature. Their training in undergraduate school gave them perhaps the most important skill an IT professional could possess: the ability to analyze.

Indeed, a generation ago the investment bank Morgan Stanley instituted what was then a revolutionary program to train recent, non-tech graduates to be programmers, systems analysts and project managers. Morgan Stanley placed recruits in an intensive, six-month work-study program that not only trained them in all matters IT but also the details of the investment banking business. The cost to train each recruit, in today’s dollars, was about $12,000.

And, the bank only recruited grads with high grades from the top two dozen U.S. colleges and universities: the Ivies, Chicago, Northwestern and Stanford, to name a few. “We pick the best, those with at least a 3.5 GPA and high SATs, which gives us an idea of their past ability and how to predict their future achievement,” then IS training director Terry Ebert told me in a 1984 interview.

Morgan Stanley was onto something in the early 1980s seeking liberal arts grads to fill IT jobs. That’s something more of today’s CIOs should consider to increase the pool of qualified talent to recruit. This is one time you hope history repeats itself.

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