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Ethic, attitude key for Bemidji IT employers

Thirteen area technology-based business leaders participated in an IT workforce discussion about what they hope to see in future employees. Shown above, from left, Scott Johnson, and Robb Detschman, listen to John Paris with Nortech along with Scott Howard. In the background is Bruce Lindberg. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer

BEMIDJI - Soft skills can be tough to find.

That was one of the messages presented Wednesday in a discussion about prospective employees in the information technology industry.

"If you could teach work ethic, ethics in general, focus on how a company works," said Steve Howard with Paul Bunyan Communications. "We can get them into our specialized niches if they come in with a good work attitude."

Numerous workforce assessments are being held on an array of industries. Jennifer Byers with the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce facilitated the Bemidji IT discussion, but noted that the request for developed soft skills - a strong work ethic, communication, interpersonal skills, friendliness and helpfulness - is a recurring theme from all of the assessments, regardless of industry.

John Paris with Nortech Systems Inc. said his is a mid-sized company that, when it comes to IT, needs employees who are "part politician."

An IT technician might, later, laugh with another IT employee about a rather dumb error someone made that caused the computer problem in the first place, but the tech needs to know to not poke fun at the employee to his or her face, he said. An IT employee also needs to be able to work with upper management, who might order new software believing it will immediately work perfectly after installation.

"We all know it doesn't work that way," Paris said. "You have to have the finesse to explain to other people ... that this stuff just doesn't plug and play."

Tact is important, agreed Nancy Koenck with First National Bank Bemidji. Some employees will want to know what they did that caused the problem so they can learn from it while others just want their systems working correctly.

"It's having the skills to know when you share information and when you just fix it," she said.

Another problem can arise if an IT person is difficult to work with, said Tony Andrews with the Bemidji School District. With 1,000 employees in the district, an IT employee needs to be the go-to person for a sect of that workforce.

If he or she is not communicating or performing the job function well, "no one then is going to that person for help," he said. "It's definitely not good."

The session covered the entire IT industry but focused on four groups of jobs within that industry: scientists and engineers, information and technology specialist, infrastructure and systems specialist, and IT management and administration.

For most of those careers, the number of area graduates is outpacing the number of jobs available - making schools in this area "exporters" - but many of the degrees awarded are two-year degrees and not four-year bachelor's degrees, reported Gordon Goodwin, the facilitator, as he reviewed applicable data.

Area employees did not cite this as a deficiency but said they wanted prospective employees to have basic business skills, such as word processing and spreadsheet know-how, and to have completed an internship.

"So you know what you're getting into," Paris said.

Paris said that unless one is employed for a larger company, an IT staffer is likely on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

"In school, if you're not thinking that, you might as well change your vocation right now," he said, noting that he has been on his sailboat in the middle of a lake when he has gotten paged.

When employers suggested that internships should be required, Norma Konschak with Northland Community & Technical College said it's not always that easy. With 700 students enrolled in IT-related programs, there would need to be internships available for all of them.

"It could technically delay a student's graduation," she said.

Konschak said there needs to be better communication and collaboration with employers so that there are opportunities for on-the-job training.

Lori Paris, president of the Bemidji Area Chamber of Commerce, said the Chamber held similar discussions before with local schools and employers. Those talks revealed that employers believed internships were somewhat difficult because of different departments that each had their own requirements.

"If we could just get more communication and discussion and make it easier for the employer, I think a lot of this would come into play," she said.