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Tech classes draw big numbers at high schools

Despite fewer jobs, kids love computers

Tech classes draw big numbers at high schools
  • October 02, 2004

Computer programmers, software engineers and developers haven't exactly had an easy time finding work in the three years since the high-tech bubble burst.

But you'd never know that based on the popularity of computer programs at local high schools.

Business education, which includes computer repair and keyboarding, is the most popular vocational program at the Houston Independent School District, said Ron Johnson, assistant superintendent of career and technology education.

Of the 43,000 students enrolled in such programs, about 14,000 are studying computer-related fields. In fact, it's more popular than marketing, construction, health sciences and agriculture put together.

"Computers are still very popular," Johnson said. "They don't know there is a slowdown in high tech."

Students familiar with PCs
According to the Worksource, the agency that keeps tabs on the job outlook for the state, the Houston area will need 940 new computer support specialists, 800 computer software engineers and 570 computer systems analysts a year through 2010.
That sounds like a lot, but not when you compare it to the demand for customer service representatives, registered nurses and elementary teachers. The Houston area will need 1,675 service reps, 1,450 nurses and 1,360 elementary teachers through 2010.

The strong desire among students isn't really that surprising because computers are incorporated in so much of our lives, Johnson said. They control our cars, we use them to cook our food and even plumbers use computers on sticks to inspect leaks.

And students have spent the last decade playing computer games and on the Internet.

Despite the cachet, some experts suggest that other careers may offer more opportunities for well-paying jobs, or that there are jobs that offer more stability than the boom-and-bust high-tech market.

Registered nurses, for example, continue to be in high demand, according to the Worksource-Gulf Coast Workforce Board.

And the median hourly wage for registered nurses is relatively high at $23.71 — almost twice as much as customer service representatives earn.

Drivers, welders needed
For students who don't want to spend as much time in advanced science classes, truck driving is a good alternative. After a relatively short course at a local community college, a trucker can be on the road making a decent living.
According to the Worksource, the Houston area will need 1,020 tractor-trailer and heavy truck drivers each year to fill the new demand.

While the median hourly wage of $13.63 isn't bad, many truckers complain that they are seldom at home. And many drivers also complain they aren't paid for the time it takes to load and unload the trucks.

Several construction jobs — welders, carpenters, first-line construction supervisors, electricians and plumbers — popped up among the fastest-growing 30 high-skill jobs in Houston.

"You still have to have someone fix the plumbing," said Steve Dement, coordinator of the Pipe Fitters Local 211 Apprenticeship Program in Houston. "You can't get on to a computer to fix your toilet."

But plumbing and pipefitting can be a hard sell.

"They'd rather be in air conditioning and sitting behind a computer and earning less money than outside sweating and climbing towers," Dement said. He has the best luck recruiting apprentices who grew up on farms because they're used to baling hay, milking cows and doing other farm chores.

But Dement is careful not to accept any more apprentices into his five-year program than he can put to work because a critical part of the training requires on-the-job experience.

Student shoots higher
Alexis Fels ticks off the reasons a career in computers appeals to her. Great job opportunities. Good pay. Flexibility.
Fels, who has liked computers since sixth grade, is attending a business education program at John H. Reagan High School in the Heights that teaches students keyboarding, computer repair and information systems.

Like many high-schoolers, the 15-year-old senior is drawn by the multiple job opportunities and high pay of in civil engineering, computer engineering and computer programming.

Fels has honed her computer skills by learning computer animation and programming during the past several summers at the University of Houston. Fels, who was salutatorian going into her junior year, is hoping to go to Harvard University or Texas A&M University next fall.

Industry ups and downs
Tony Pannagl , managing partner of IS&T, an information technology staffing and consulting company in Houston, said that students like Fels need not worry.
"Every industry goes through highs and lows," Pannagl said.

Pannagl suggests that students interested in high tech should focus on business processes as well as programming or networks.

Position yourself strategically so you're more valuable, he said. Be a programmer who understands the energy business. Or be a programmer who understands the medical business.