Six months ago, a rainbow-haired Chelsea Hall-Fitzgerald had just completed a computer networking certificate at Collin College. She also worked part time in a big box appliance store.
Today, her hourly wage as a full-time project coordinator for AMX by Harman is three times what she made as a clerk, and she is on track to complete her associate degree at Collin College in December.
Hall-Fitzgerald became an information technology (IT) technician before graduation because the humble attitude, tenacity, and, most importantly, excitement for IT that she demonstrated during a student presentation got her a interview for a job initially advertised as requiring a bachelor's degree.
Hall-Fitzgerald, who started college as an art education major, is glad she did not quit her first computer networking course, as two other women did, before the third class session.
"Don't give up after the first class," the 20-year-old Hall-Fitzgerald advises other women.
The first few class sessions of her first IT course were alternately difficult and boring. She stuck with it because her father, a networking engineer, told her to wait at least until the last day she could drop the course without jeopardizing her grade point average. By that time, the intricacies of IT had started to click with her.
Instructor Michael Harsh astutely recognized that having a female mentor would help Hall-Fitzgerald through any feelings of isolation because she was the only female in the class. In the first month of the networking course he called Ann Beheler, principal investigator of both the National Convergence Technology Center (CTC) and National Information, Security & Geospatial Technologies Consortium at Collin College and asked her to serve as Hall-Fitzgerald's mentor. Beheler readily agreed.
Information Technology Careers Are a Way to Help People
As Hall-Fitzgerald's technical knowledge grew, she saw IT as a way of helping people, which was her main motivation for planning to become a teacher.
“I wanted to help people. I love helping people. That's all IT is," Hall-Fitzgerald said. Resolving wireless system problems isn't as dramatic as television portrays the life of physicians, but she knows from experience it is important, especially to the person whose internet service goes down.
"People have problems, and they come to us. We fix it. We make them happy. You know it's all about helping people. I love that. You don't see that because we're behind the scenes, in the background ... It's IT who makes that all better, puts the band-aid on it, and wraps you up, and gets you going."
IT also appeals to her artistic side. Hall-Fitzgerald explained: “It's all designing. You don't just go into something and say I'm going to make these changes now. There's so many things to think about. That’s where it gets fun. It's like, how is this going to impact this? And how is this going to impact that?
"And I see everything in colors. I like to make everything pretty. That's the art part of me. So you know, how do those things mold together? And what kind of picture are they going to make together?"
It was this kind of thinking that caught the attention of Matt Glover, senior director of Global Information Technology for AMX by Harman. He chairs the Business and Industry Leadership Team for the National Convergence Technology Center and serves as a representative on the center's National Visiting Committee. The center is one of 42 funded by the National Science Foundation's Advanced Technological Education program to develop curriculum and other materials to educate technicians for IT and other advanced technology careers.
Employer Values Millennials' Fresh Perspective When It Comes with Enthusiasm
"It was her attitude that was very compelling for me, I believe her energy and eagerness for technology will breath new life into the global IT organization," Glover said during an employer-employee panel at the 2014 Advanced Technological Education Principal Investigators Conference on October 22. After the student presentation in Texas in May, Glover told her to apply for a project coordinator job for which a panel of three AMX managers was about to begin interviews.
Glover likes the fresh perspective that millennials—people born since the late 1980s—bring to technical problems that the company encounters as it makes workplace products.
"We need to be able to appeal to the next generation of workers. In order for us to do that, especially in technology, we have to start that mindset now. We can't afford to wait 20 years and go, 'Oh yeah we should have done that.' We need to work on that right now. And I can't do that with my own mind. I need the minds of the younger people," Glover said.
However, he has been put off by the "empowered or entitled" attitudes he has encountered when working with some millennials. "They are un-teachable people. Those are people who are not people who are excited to be there," he said, adding that they typically don't last as employees.
"I'm excited about technology because it's a craft I've honed over the years. They [millennials] are excited about technology because they were born in it. It's different. I find it fascinating to see through their eyes. When I come up against a problem, I would apply a solution that is known from my experience ... when I bring a millennial into the mix, they don't have any of those experiences so they are not cluttered with that baggage and they say, maybe we should do it this way," he said.
Glover explained that he could see this potential in Hall-Fitzgerald. "I needed passionate resources that were energetic about the technology and really wanted to make a meaningful difference for our organization regardless of what state they were in their education," Glover said. He added that he likes to inject the diverse perspectives of women, minorities, and military veterans on his teams whenever possible.
After learning that her application would be considered for the coordinator position that initially had been listed as requiring a bachelor's degree, the career and success coaches at Collin College helped her update her resume. Then Beheler and CTC Director Helen Sullivan peppered her with questions during mock interviews and pointed out ways to improve her posture and make eye contact. During the panel discussion, Hall-Fitzgerald humorously recounted that Beheler told her to dye her hair a single, more natural color, and not wear rings to the AMX interviews because she twists them when she's nervous.
No-nonsense advice for navigating the job application process and instruction in soft skills like teamwork are part of the curriculum at CTC and other ATE centers and projects, because employers identify these personal attributes as important for technicians as technical skills.
Hall-Fitzgerald followed the educators' advice. She won over the interview panel and began full time work at AMX in June.