Students in classroom with computers

Three high school students recently had the chance to investigate high-tech careers at the University of Iowa through the Kirkwood Community College Workplace Learning Connection (WLC) program.

WLC fosters relationships between youths and employers in a seven-county region of eastern Iowa. Through brief, on-site job shadow or internship experiences, high school juniors and seniors are exposed to a range of regional career opportunities and see what it’s like to work in a variety of settings.

Participation in the Workplace Learning Connection program aligns with efforts Information Technology Services-Research Services (RS) is making to develop, recruit, and retain talent for hard-to-fill research computing positions.

The job shadows were coordinated by RS Storage Services Administrator John Saxton, who recruited his colleagues Communications Manager Elizabeth Leake and Compliance Specialist Gabriella Perez to assist. Over two days, they spent a few hours with students interested in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) academics and careers.

While on campus, the students toured facilities and built relationships with their mentors, asking questions about career experience, academic preparation, and hobbies. They learned about the varied journeys a diverse array of people have taken to establish successful careers in advanced computing.

The first student self-identified as a high academic achiever and said he wanted to work with technology but didn’t understand much about computers, though he has a passion for video games. He knew there must be thousands of hours of development behind the interface, so they talked about the academic preparation needed to pursue a career as an application developer.

The second student was proud to serve as a Boy Scout and asked for help earning a graphic design merit badge. He knew the effort would involve computers and require a mastery of graphics applications that he looks forward to developing. The third student was confident he wants to study cybersecurity. His father recently retired from a military career and applied his leadership and technical training to form a cybersecurity startup. The student hopes to help his dad’s business succeed. 

“Without the opportunity to visit campus, these students may not have considered the Hawkeye route as an option for college,” Leake says. “We hope their job-shadow experience helps them envision themselves in a broader range of UI careers, whether or not they're college-bound. We also hope they’ll remember Iowa when the time comes.”

Recruiting research computing specialists

The UI employs about 19,000 people, including a large percentage working in STEM-related careers. More than 800 are degreed professionals who support campus technology, but only a few dozen specialize in research computing, scientific software development, advanced skills training, compliance, cybersecurity, and related communications. They’re an elite team that support and train in the use of technology that drives innovation and discovery in every research domain.

Many Research Services skill sets are one deep and when someone leaves it can be a long time before a suitable replacement is found. While the quality of life in Iowa City is why many choose to make it their home, it can be difficult to recruit specialists from east- or west-coast communities where they can earn higher salaries, even if the cost of living is also twice as much. It isn’t surprising, therefore, that ITS-RS specialists are actively recruited, and there is a high rate of attrition.

In addition to employing novel retention strategies, such as flexible work options, support for continuing education, and other forms of professional development, RS seeks ways to increase the local prospect pool by exposing more students, faculty, and staff—from a larger variety of disciplines—to specialized training. The WLC program accommodates this mission.

RS is also considering offering vocational training and evening workshops for nontraditional students, including veterans—many of whom any reenter the civilian workforce with security and engineering skills that translate well within a variety of STEM careers.

RS also invites UI employees to job-shadow or cross-train with RS specialists as part of the Sharing Perspectives and Realizing Knowledge (SPARK) experiential learning program. By targeting early-career professionals, they hope to help more envision advanced STEM careers, especially women and other demographics that are underrepresented in research computing.

“Above all, we seek evidence of aptitude and technical curiosity when interviewing interns and job applicants,” says Danny Tang, senior director of Research Services.

More information on careers in research computing at Iowa is available on the Research Services website. To learn more about the WLC program, visit the Kirkwood Community College website. If you are interested in hosting students through WLC, please contact your local HR representative with as much advance notice as possible and ensure compliance with the Minors on Campus Policy.