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Staff Photo by Tim Barber/Chattanooga Times Free Press/ - Unum's Jeff Look, left, explains the inner workings of a secure server rack to Ooltewah students Valerie Alcala, Hannah O'Rear, teacher Marva Naylor and Desiree Oliver during a tour at "Tech Night."

With time running out, groups of young workers hastily conferred around four folding tables in the atrium of Unum's cavernous West building. Outside in the winter cold, the lights of downtown Chattanooga shimmered through the skylights.

Their assignment was to create an interface for an instant messaging program - but they had to do it quickly.

Suddenly the building's power shut off, and emergency illumination threw the frantic scene into shadows.

The interruption didn't faze the young workers, who continued in hushed tones after a few switched on small flashlights.

"This happens sometimes; you've just got to keep working," said Richard Collins, who serves in Unum's information technology department.

It was all part of an elaborate evening planned by Unum to bring prospective talent to the company's massive IT program by giving high school seniors a taste of the action.

A HOLE TO FILL

Unum's tech staff makes up 10 percent of the insurer's total work force, according to IT supervisor Andrea Roma, and they fill a variety of roles.

But more than 20 percent of Unum's 1,400 tech professionals are approaching retirement age, and as a result the company has accelerated its efforts to recruit new blood into its program by bringing high-school students into its Chattanooga headquarters for a little show and tell.

"I would totally work in IT," said student Rebecca Nolting, who shared first-place in a team building event. "I'm learning CISCO at school."

She has some basic experience with HTML programming and creating a coaxial cable, but also would like to be an English major.

The problem is that an IT career sounds a little boring to some students, they reveal with sly smiles between bites of pizza.

"If you want to clear a room, start talking about your IT job at an insurance company," joked one veteran network administrator.

Still, it's hard to pigeonhole a job that boasts so many different disciplines under the information technology banner, Roma said.

VARIETY OF BACKGROUNDS

A Facebook group for IT professionals with more than 32,000 members says its tasks range from "installing applications to designing complex computer networks and information databases."

IT includes the fields of "data management, networking, engineering computer hardware, database and software design, as well as management and administration of entire systems," the site states.

In the end, it all boils down to teamwork and puzzle-solving, tech staffers said.

Unum hires testers, managers, analysts and other less tech-heavy assignments to work in the IT field, Roma added, and new IT workers sometimes come from completely different disciplines.

"The hope is that the students will enroll in computer science classes in college, come back and do an internship with us, and then apply here when they graduate," she said.

The Tech Night program, which is designed to accomplish that goal, started in 2009 but is still in its early stages.

Systems consultant Michael Weiss runs students through a variety of exercises that test aptitude for design, interface and infrastructure, he said.

"They have to figure out how their choices will affect the end product," he said of a game where students attempted to build the highest freestanding tower out of plastic tubes.

"It's about thought patterns and working as a team, so we're deliberately putting them with people they don't know."

Wesley Boyd, 17, was on the team that managed to build the tallest tower, but he didn't identify himself as a information technology enthusiast.

"I'm studying to be an electrical-chemical engineer," he said. "I've always liked to take stuff apart and put stuff back together," but he isn't sure that an IT career is for him.

"I'd consider it."

Contact staff writer Ellis Smith at esmith@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6315.

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