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IT: It’s Back

IT: It’s Back

Spring 2008

Mar 20, 2008

The domestic IT industry is back and hungry for employees. Fox Valley Technical College can provide you with the skills and degree to get you on track for a new career.

Why did a 33-year-old analytical chemist in California abandon a well-paying job and warm winters to study computer programming and Web development? Simple. She wanted a better life.

Bonnie Tomlin, who specialized in polymer and pharmaceutical chemistry for an analytical instrumentation company, often accompanied her co-workers on sales trips.

Twice a year, she would embark on a three-month cross-country tour, conducting seminars at customer locations or hotels for groups ranging from 25 to 50 people. “It was a burnout job,” acknowledges Tomlin, who was born and raised in Appleton. “The average tenure was two to three years, and I was there for six. It was fun, but I wanted to have a life rather than just a job.”

Since moving back home, she married her high school sweetheart, Heath Tomlin, and later added a Yorkie-Poo to the family. She’s also spending a lot of time with her parents and other family members.

Tomlin, now 36, is putting the finishing touches on her new life by earning Programmer/Analyst and Web Development and Design associate degrees from FVTC. Choosing the computer industry allowed her to use some of the knowledge she learned in California. “I did a lot of teaching and demonstrating software, and I also worked closely with software engineers,” she explains. “I thought that these degrees would be a good fit for what I already knew and for enabling me to get a good job in that area.”

Tomlin is glad she chose FVTC for a number of reasons. “The class sizes are small and the teachers are really accessible and knowledgeable because they all came from industry,” she says. “And they’ve recently come back to teaching; it hasn’t been 30 years since they’ve been working in the field. There’s also a lot of hands-on learning. The computers are in the lab with you and you’re typing along with the instructors, so if you have questions, they’re right there. If I had gone to a four-year university, it would have been more theoretical than hands-on.”

The quality of the programming coursework is also first-rate. “The content is better than what I expected,” Tomlin says. “There’s a lot to learn in this field, but they offer a broad range of programming languages so it’s a really good start. Employers expect you to learn seven or eight languages and know those languages really well. I thought it would be difficult to gain proficiency in that many different languages in a two-year program, but FVTC introduced all of them—Visual Basic, C++, XML, PHP, JavaScript, HTML, SQL, and Flash—giving me the tools I needed to learn more about them beyond the class time allotted.

“After earning my degrees I’d like to get a job in the area doing Web development-type work,” she adds. “One of my co-workers just got a great job in Web design and development just one month after graduating.”

No matter where she ends up working, Tomlin plans to continue her education. “I still have a lot of material from my classes that I can go through to upgrade my skills,” she says. “I’ll also take courses at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, and hopefully my employer will offer training courses as well.”

That commitment to learning characterizes many nontraditional students at FVTC. “Bonnie’s been a star student in the program,” says Doug Waterman, team leader for the Information Technology department, who’s also taught Tomlin in multiple programming classes. “When someone who already has a degree and has been out working comes back, they’re very serious about their education. Bonnie is a prime example of that. She’ll take a class apart to make sure she’s getting everything she can out of it.”

An IT Resurgence

After eight years of dwindling enrollment (and well-documented national doldrums), IT has roared back to life. “We were growing big time up until 2000,” Waterman recalls. “We had doubled the size of our instructional staff to keep up with all the people who wanted to enter IT. Then the dot-com bubble burst. Fortunately, we pretty much held our own. We’ve started to see pre-dot-com levels of students going into IT. We have around 480 students enrolled right now. After the dot-com bust, people were saying that IT wasn’t a good place to go. Well, surprise, it still is.”

Statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reaffirm this assertion. According to the BLS, the employment prospects for computer and information systems managers, software engineers, Web developers and designers, and others will grow at a much faster than average rate through the next decade.

Technical college graduates are prized these days. In fact, much like the heady days of the late 1990s, some IT specialists have their pick of jobs. “Last spring, most of the students in my upper-level programming classes already had jobs lined up months before the semester was over,” Waterman recalls. “So when employers came to us in May and June looking for candidates, we had to say, ‘Sorry, you’re too late. All our graduates are hired already.’ That’s the way it was before the dot-com bust. Students were ready to go to work as soon as they walked out the door.”

Essentially, FVTC’s programs change in concert with marketplace changes. “We regularly seek feedback from area employers because technology changes so fast,” Waterman explains. “A year ago, we put together a DACUM (Developing A Curriculum) involving seven local companies. They spent the day with us discussing what they expected an entry-level person coming out of a technical college to know. From that feedback, we rebuilt the entire networking program.”

Whatever the marketplace wants, the marketplace gets. “Our most recent degree, Web Development and Design Specialist, actually fell out of our Programmer/Analyst degree,” Waterman says. “Our Web Development cluster covered rendering a Web page with HTML, doing the scripting, and using XML for data transfer on a Web page. But what it didn’t hit was the graphics side, how to lay out a page with design elements. To address that area, we decided to create a new degree. So we took the Web Development out of the Programmer/Analyst degree and combined it with a Web Design cluster.”

The Network Specialist degree also underwent a metamorphosis based on industry needs. This time, however, the feedback came from an unexpected source. “A student returning from a job interview told us that he was asked how many networks he had configured from scratch,” Waterman says. “He said, ‘None. I’ve configured routers and servers, but I’ve never done it all as part of one project.’ When we heard that, we created a Network Design and Implementation class that ties everything together at the end of the program. Students are given all the material and specs for creating a network from ground zero.”

An FVTC IT degree will always be relevant. Immediately after Microsoft introduced Visual Studio 2008, the College’s IT department began integrating it into its fall courses. “If someone’s going to spend two years getting their degree with us, we have to have them prepared for two years from now when that product is going to be mainstream,” Waterman says. “It’s all about keeping up with current technology.”