Whatever you do, please don't call Stephanie Lee a geek. Sure, she's majoring in information technology and marketing at Marquette University in Milwaukee, where she's a senior.
But she doesn't write code, she isn't gadget-crazed or Internet-obsessed, and she positively isn't interested in a career as a programmer or tech support jockey.
What Lee is interested in is strategy. During a high school summer internship, she was charged with finding a way for a manufacturing company to more efficiently track packages overseas. Lee combed the Web for research. She chatted up employees to understand the process and the pain points. She even came up with an ROI strategy that convinced upper management to adopt her technology choice to fix their problem.
The experience ignited a passion in Lee to pursue a career in IT. "I've known ever since I was 17 that IT is for me," says Lee. "Most people assume that IT [people are] stuck in front of a computer the entire time, coding away. They don't understand that that's only one small component to our tool set -- our role is so much broader than that."
Dream employee? Absolutely. Does that mean hiring managers can expect Lee's contemporaries to enter the workforce equipped with a similar grasp of the big-picture concepts of a career in IT?
Well, no, say IT executives, human resource professionals and computer science professors.
Members of Generation Y -- roughly, the group born between the early 1980s and the late 1990s -- are arriving on the job market armed with up-to-the-minute technology skills, but they're lacking in other areas, such as business communication skills, employers say. Moreover, many are wary of IT as a viable career choice.
Tech lifestyle or tech career?
Certainly, when it comes to considering a career in technology, Generation Y is more jaded than generations past. The number of freshmen pursuing a computer science track has fallen by 70 percent since 2000, according to the Computing Research Association. The reasons are myriad.
Would-be technologists are turned off by the tech crash of the early '00s, the shift of jobs overseas to outsourcing providers, and an overall perception of IT as a go-nowhere, nuts-and-bolts profession, observers say.
And the up-and-coming generation puts a premium on work/life balance, having seen firsthand the toll working around-the-clock took on its parents. As a result, they tend to shy away from jobs that demand the 40-hour-plus workweeks typical of IT.
This is the group that simultaneously IMs, blogs, surfs the Web and downloads podcasts. In the end, ironically, it might be this extreme comfort with technology that most deters these young people from pursuing IT as a favorable, even desirable, career.
"To another generation, IT was cool because no one else knew much about it," notes Kate Kaiser, associate professor of IT (and one of Lee's instructors) at Marquette. "This generation is so familiar with technology, they see it as an expected part of life" -- and therefore not worthy of consideration as a full-time career.
When she's not teaching, Kaiser is an academic liaison with and charter member of the Society for Information Management (SIM). One of her responsibilities there is to work with other universities, technology companies and IT professionals to try to alter the perceptions today's youth have of technology careers.
Another of Kaiser's responsibilities is to work with other SIM members and peer professors to modify the IT curriculum nationwide. The goal is to reflect the need for up-and-comers to have stronger business, communication and project management skills -- all areas where this latest generation comes up short. "People in IT today have to be more well rounded -- they can't just have technical expertise," Kaiser says.