Profile: CompTIA

Charley Rogers catches up with CompTIA’s Graham Hunter and Todd Thibodeaux at the annual CompTIA conference in London, and hears about why STEM is doing the tech industry no good, and how traditional higher education can be a barrier to a tech career


Graham Hunter

Job title:

Twitter: @CompTIA

Todd Thibodeaux

Job title: CEO


Q. For a bit of background, what are the audiences you mostly engage with at CompTIA, and what are some of the biggest challenges you face?

Todd Thibodeaux: We interface with four primary audiences. Governments, academic, commercial, and companies that do for-profit training. It varies by the market that we go into, but some people will take what we do and embed it within what they do. So they might make it part of their hiring – only hiring people who are [CompTIA] certified – and then they keep up to date on the certifications, as new ones come out.

For academic institutions, what we try to do is make our learning objectives freely available to the schools, so they can ensure that when you map those against the curriculum, they’re teaching all the things they need to. But the sad story is that generally when we do that, we find most universities are only teaching about half of what they should be teaching. We usually get the response, “No, we’re fine. We don’t need your help.” But that’s changing in some parts of the world. In some places, they embrace [our support].

I think the more for-profit the university is, the more they embrace what we do. And the older, non-profit universities, all over the world, not just here and in the US, they generally give us the stiff arm.

I think the big deficit we see is the lack of quality teachers to teach technology in secondary schools and in colleges in particular. They’re just not keeping up. And we’re in one of those periods where the gap is getting bigger. What we’re trying to do with a new programme this coming year, is to provide a whole range of video on-demand learning that covers all our programmes. We’re going to make the videos widely available to schools, so that in places where they don’t have a qualified instructor, especially non-university programmes, they can use our videos with someone we call a classroom facilitator, to at least be there to answer basic questions, direct the kids to the right place, and have them effectively work together to solve the issues.

So, a lack of instructors and a lack of willingness to adopt global standards are the two biggest issues we face.

Q. You’ve both previously mentioned the skills gap. Is that gap equal across the technology sector, or are there particular pockets of skills that are missing?

TT: Cybersecurity is certainly one of those areas where the gap has gotten larger. But that’ll eventually catch up, skills gaps always do. The bigger issue that we see is what we call the confidence gap. It’s this ability to reach audiences who wouldn’t have normally been predisposed to work in tech because they don’t think they can do it. So we call it the confidence gap. The idea is to get more women, more minorities, to understand that they can work in this industry, that you don’t have to be a maths and science genius, and trying to get schools to focus a little less on STEM. I don’t think STEM has done the technology sector any favours. You hear more people complain about the quality of students coming out of universities now, and we’ve been focusing on STEM for 15 years. It’s had virtually no appreciable positive impact on the tech workforce.

We need to get more people into the [tech careers] pipeline, because anybody can acquire the skills. Anybody. We have a programme that takes people who’ve never even turned on a computer, and eight weeks later they’re doing tech support. And these are people like middle-aged housewives that have been out of work for two years. It’s a US programme, but we’re trying to get something going here as well, a charitable programme called IT Ready.

The other myth that the universities have perpetrated in schools is that you need three or four years of university to work in the tech industry. This is not true. You could train for around nine months and work really effectively in the industry. But it’s tough to combat those myths because their whole business model is built on students staying for three or four years and paying tuition. The truth is, there are lots of good jobs out there, and in the UK, and the US in particular, a university degree is just a barrier that dissuades a lot of people from exploring the tech industry. They think they’ll need a tech degree, when they may already have an English degree, and so can’t possibly go into the industry, whereas the fact is, the soft skills developed as an English major are really valuable, and if you just got a little technical training you could do it.

Graham Hunter: I think apprenticeships have been a good step in that direction. I think there’s probably more value in doing some of these cybersecurity apprenticeships than going to university. Because as they’re on-the-job learning, they can get industry certifications like ours, and they’re going to accelerate their careers quicker than going into a four-year degree programme. And the question of a degree is, will it keep pace with where things are in industry, or is it obsolete? Being at the coalface, so to speak, gives you that kind of close proximity to where the changes are actually happening. I think that’s beneficial.

I don’t think STEM has done the technology sector any favours. You hear more people complaining about the quality of students coming out of universities now, and we’ve been focusing on STEM for 15 years. – Todd Thibodeaux

Q. So what about the role of assessment? Are we going to see more of a move towards competency-based learning, and away from the traditional exam model?

GH: It’s going to take an educational revolution. It really is. Because we’re too fixated on the current model.

No one political party will take the risk I don’t think.

But it’s going to take somebody to take the current model, throw it out the window, and consider something else.

TT: The current model is based on knowledge recall, not on competencies. We’re in the process of patenting in the US what we call adaptive competency assessment. So instead of taking a fixed exam that gets marked up, and there’s a score, the students would go through progressively harder levels, and the information or skills that they would have to demonstrate in the exam array from easy to hard.

So then the next level is demonstrably harder. The thing with exams now, is that some kids get 100% on those tests, but you’re hurting the kids who don’t do well in that specific environment, and you’re also not seeing the full range of how the kids are actually doing.

One of my big arguments with education in general is that we haven’t really retooled it for the Google world. So all this stuff that we’re forcing kids to learn and remember, they have it at their fingertips. Instead we should be spending time on finding out what kids are really good at. I think we spend at least 30–40% too much time cramming kids full of knowledge that they can get anytime they want. For instance, somebody who gravitates towards being a taxi driver obviously has a lot of patience. They must like dealing with people to some degree, they can keep themselves organised and run their business. And they could have jobs in lots of other fields that require those skills. But the vast majority of jobs don’t require advanced maths skills, yet we’re forcing all these kids to try to be really good at maths, when some of them are naturally, and some of them are not. So why not spend time trying to raise up maths skills in those that aren’t naturally predisposed to it, when you can focus on the skills they do have? We’re trying to break these old-school dogmas.

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