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Unum “Tech Night” Cultivates Student Interest in IT Careers

Local high school and college students learn about IT careers through interactive activities hosted by volunteers from Unum’s Global Business Technology organization.

Demand for IT professionals is expected to rise sharply during the coming decade, but students are likely to be less informed about technology careers than in the recent past, owing to program cuts at high schools. That’s a challenge for all businesses and perhaps especially for insurers hoping to attract talent into their IT organizations, these considerations, along with a desire to provide a public service, have motivated Unum’s (Chattanooga, Tenn.; more than $10 billion in 2009 revenue) Global Business Technology organization to hold “Tech Nights” to educate high school and first-year college students about technology careers. So far Unum has held six Tech Nights — four at its Portland, Maine offices and two at its Chattanooga-based headquarters — which engage local students in fun, interactive activities led by Unum volunteers. By the end of 2010, the insurer expects to have reached over 200 students through the program.

“We thought it would be a good service to expose students to the career and introduce them to people who love what they do,” comments Andrea Roma, director of workforce planning within Unum’s Global Business Technology organization. “We have about 30 volunteers from Unum who help us with these events — they give the students that glimpse of the career and show them the energy and passion that they have for their jobs.”

The importance of the program is underscored in a brochure Unum that shares with prospective participating schools which quotes Bureau of Labor statistics predicting a 32 percent increase in the employment of software engineers from 2008 to 2018. Unum is also very focused on the challenge of recruiting the next-generation IT professional, according to Jim Smith, VP, shared services, Global Business Technology. “About 40 percent of our IT officers — director and above — are over 50, as are 20 percent of the entire IT workforce,” he says.

Approximately 25 students arrive at the events at 4:00 PM and go to ten tables staffed by Unum professionals from various areas of the company’s technology organization, such as IT security, server engineering and print and distribution. The most recent event, on Oct. 28 also featured a video monitor whereby attendees were able to communicate in real time with representative of Unum partner CSC in India.

“Students had a chance to ask questions directly, live to India,” Roma says. “We have partners in India and Ireland, and we wanted to give the students a sense of our global operation.”

Another table exhibited a “technology antiques” display, including COBOL coding sheets, reel tapes, a TRS 80, a Mac Classic, a rotary phone and a slide rule. The fun approach of these and other displays helps students to relax and enjoy the activities with the Unum volunteers, according to Roma. “It gives the students a chance to warm up and see that we’re all just people,” she says.

After the introductory activities, students are broken up into teams and mixed with peers from other schools to do team-building activities. In the first exercise, students are tasked with constructing towers built from straws, Styrofoam cups, masking tape and paper clips. They are given seven minutes to plan and ten minutes to build, Roma says. The activity is intended to break the ice between the students, and also to emphasize that success is about more than mere technical know-how.

“Once they’ve finished we ask them a few questions, such as, ‘Did you stick with your plan?,’” Roma relates. “It illustrates what we go through with requirements and deadlines, and the importance of adjusting when reality strikes.”

After a pizza break, the students are led through the two biggest exercises of the night, one oriented toward application development and the other bearing on infrastructure.

One exercise presents student teams with a “bare bones” chat interface that they are tasked to make more robust and user friendly. They are given a short list of requirements and are given 20 minutes to design and are supervised by a volunteer to draw out the less assertive students and balance participation. “They then present their work to the full group,” Roma says. “We talk about integration, how they would need to work together with real teams and not step on each other. It gives them a feel for what our application developers do every day — understand requirements, clarify with team members and be creative.”

While half the students work on the chat interface task, the other half participates in a virtual server build exercise. “The group learns about physical versus virtual servers and they get a chance to work through a typical request for a server and do some estimating work under the guidance of Unum engineers,” Roma explains.

After both groups have completed their respective tasks, they switch places. When both groups have completed both exercises, they watch a brief filming that shows IT professionals at work across the global organization, as well as doing volunteer work in the community. “We run a trivia contest throughout the night and at the end of the night there’s a prize,” Roma says. “All participants get a free year of Lojack, but the big prize is a router — the idea is that the winner goes home and builds a wireless network.”

Unum’s interaction doesn’t end with Tech Night, Roma emphasizes. The insurer follows up with information about computer science programs at local colleges and universities. The carrier’s HR department follows up with information about college internships that will give students an opportunity to work at Unum on that basis. “We also talk to faculty members about the possibility of job shadowing or mentoring,” Roma says. “We do this to try to strengthen the connection beyond the single event.”

Anthony O'Donnell has covered technology in the insurance industry since 2000, when he joined the editorial staff of Insurance & Technology. As an editor and reporter for I&T and the InformationWeek Financial Services of TechWeb he has written on all areas of information ... View Full Bio

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