When we look at the children in our lives, we might see disheveled hair, endless curiosity and, perhaps, a proclivity toward viral TikTok videos. What MJ Shoer sees is the future of our country’s workforce and economic and national security. But cultivating in-demand tech skills in kids isn’t simple or easy. Teachers are under more pressure than ever to meet the basic educational requirements of students post-Covid, let alone develop a curriculum for the fast-evolving tech industry. A Pew Research Center study reported that only 29% of Americans believe that the U.S. STEM education is above average.
Earlier this month, Shoer was named the new chief executive officer at CompTIA Spark (formerly Creating IT Futures Foundation), the nonprofit social innovation and impact arm of the industry trade association. His mission is to address the workforce gap at its roots – in middle school education. Shoer will also continue to serve as chief community officer at CompTIA, a position he’s held since January 2022.
CompTIA Spark is building and refining a free curriculum for middle school teachers that they can deliver to students without being a technologist or adding to their existing workload. Though this isn’t the career path Shoer imagined pursuing just a few years ago, “it was one of those fortuitous things,” he says. “The right thing at the right time for all the right reasons.”
Give, Expecting Nothing Thereof
Shoer was a Phi Kappa Theta at the University of New Hampshire, an experience that profoundly impacted him as a young man. The fraternity’s motto is “Give, expecting nothing thereof.” Shoer and his fraternity brothers often volunteered and organized charitable events.
“The premise of it was always to try to be of service and help without any expectations,” Shoer explains. “Don’t do it because you think it will help you make more money, have a better career or meet someone you’re attracted to. Do it because you believe in what you’re doing.”
For Shoer, joining the CompTIA and CompTIA Spark teams was precisely that – an opportunity to give back to the industry that gave much to him.
Shoer founded his MSP, Jenaly Technology Group, in 1997. Three years later, he joined CompTIA as a member. The resources and relationships he gained from the organization as an engaged member helped him grow a thriving MSP. In 2004, he became a CompTIA board member and, later, board chair. “I had a passion for what CompTIA meant to my business. I loved my business and got much satisfaction from helping clients and other peers I met around the country. I felt like the industry had given me far more than I had ever given it,” he says.
In 2015, he sold his MSP to a friendly competitor. Two years later, they sold to another national IT firm that took the company in a new direction. Shoer seized the chance to start a consulting business in 2019. One of his projects was consulting on a CompTIA cyber security initiative that became the CompTIA Information Sharing and Analysis Organization (ISAO), which analyzes the latest cyber security threats and provides actionable threat intelligence for the global IT channel ecosystem and MSP and MSSP communities. One year later, CompTIA asked Shoer to join the company full-time as senior vice president and executive director of the CompTIA ISAO, which began his career journey with CompTIA.
“When the opportunity came to work for CompTIA – where the mission is to unlock the potential of every individual and organization in the tech space – I thought, this reminds me of the good old Phi Kappa Theta days, except this is my opportunity to give back to an industry and an organization that has given me a lot,” Shoer says.
You Can Lose Everything, But Not What’s In Your Mind
In some ways, Shoer’s career choices were also influenced by his father, a self-made man, entrepreneur and WWII veteran. He was stationed in Guam and, though he never saw combat, the experience resulted in life lessons that changed the trajectory of his father’s life. “He would say to me,” Shoer explains, “‘Look, you can lose all your possessions. You could lose your house, your car or your shirt, but you never lose what’s in your mind. You never lose your life experiences, the knowledge you gain and the ability to use that for good. No one can ever take that away from you.’”
Those life lessons – giving without expectation and using knowledge for good – were powerful motivators when Shoer accepted his new role at CompTIA Spark to unlock the potential of the next-generation workforce.
“That definitely is in the back of my mind when I think about helping young kids to develop confidence and skills they’ll carry with them throughout their life, no matter what happens. They’ll always have that with them as part of their toolbox to accomplish whatever they may want to accomplish,” he says.
CompTIA Spark’s primary program is the Middle School Program, which provides educators with a curriculum to inspire interest in middle school students and build skills and confidence for life. A complementary program, TechGirlz, offers out-of-school workshops for middle school girls to explore the possibilities of technology in their futures. Both programs seek to fill a gap in the workforce – not just in the tech industry, but in all industries that need more tech-literate workers to stay competitive in today’s market. According to the World Economic Forum, nine out of 10 jobs will mandate digital skills in the future.
“It doesn’t matter what business you go into. You need to have skills and confidence around technology to really be successful,” Shoer says.
The key to securing technical competency for tomorrow’s workforce is cultivating interest in tech in middle schoolers when their career paths are beginning to take shape.
“The middle-school-age youth is where the real opportunity is because by the time a kid gets to high school, they’re probably already on a career track because of things their family or adult influencers have said to them,” Shoer explains.
He also points out that an elite workforce is an economic and national security matter. Other countries – particularly those threatening our national security – are already grooming the next generation. “If that gap doesn’t close now,” Shoer says, “we’ll have bigger problems down the road. If we don’t educate the right workforce, we’ll get left behind, which won’t be good.”
So far, feedback from teachers implementing the program is fantastic. “It’s everything we could have hoped for,” Shoer says. His ambition as CEO is that CompTIA Spark’s resources become part of the core curriculum across the nation.
“This is something we hope will outlive all of us,” he says. “That’s the core motivation here – doing something that will produce good for many generations to come.”