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December 8, 2006

The IT Workforce Conundrum

Michael Feldman

In the Information Society that we seem to be inhabiting, it has become a cliché to talk about the insatiable demand for information technology workers. The IT workforce shortage is an annoying reality, but it makes sense. In agricultural societies of the past, a significant percentage of the populace ended up as farmers to serve that economic model. Things are no different in this era; only the economic engine has changed.

In fact, I'd go so far as to say we're at the very beginning of the Information Society — basically the “hunter and gatherer” stage. At this point, whole battalions of tech workers are required to keep the system humming along.

And there's little doubt that the demand for IT workers is growing. This year, a Money magazine article documented that software engineering, a typical IT occupation, can expect 46 percent growth over the next 10 years. Or at least that's the hope. Hardly a month goes by without some report lamenting the fact that we're not turning out enough scientists and engineers to satisfy the demands of the information technology sector. It's not that IT jobs are getting a bad rap. That same Money magazine article rated software engineering as the top career pick, based on growth, pay, stress levels and other factors.

So what's going on?

Analysts have proposed a number of reasons why our output of IT professionals is so low. Some believe schools are failing to provide students with enough science and math education in grades K-12. Some are pointing to the dot-com bust that forced workers into other pursuits during the early 2000s. Others believe the high-tech outsourcing phenomenon and the use of H1B visas is persuading workers to seek employment in other careers — those that can't be shipped overseas or undercut by foreign-born workers.

All of these explanations have some validity. To be sure, college student enrollment in computer science programs is down substantially from the 1990s — around 20 percent according to the Computing Research Association. In fact, the peak numbers reached in the last decade reflected the Internet boom and represented twice as many CS students as there were in the 1970s. Outsourcing is helping to meet the demand of some types of IT jobs, but many companies are still hard-pressed to find qualified tech workers.

A recent PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) report predicts that competition for high-tech talent is going to become even more severe over the next few years as globalization absorbs the remaining technology workers around the world. The report says that while companies have been forced to look offshore in order to gain access to larger pools of talent, even this resource is not bottomless. European and Asian executives anticipate a severe shortage of tech talent within the next three years. And, according to the report, worker compensation is being equalized globally; even India and China are not considered low-cost anymore.

The PwC report also recognizes that science and math skills, by themselves, are not enough. The most successful tech workers are able to innovate, collaborate and manage change. Technology companies need to recognize this and employ strategies to develop and manage their human capital accordingly — such as partnering with schools to develop technology education programs and providing individualized career development for their employees. Some of the larger IT companies, such as Intel, IBM and Yahoo, have processes in place to do things like this and are achieving various degrees of success.  But overall, the industry has not changed the supply-demand imbalance of tech workers.

That's the big picture — but maybe not big enough. I can't help thinking something is missing. Eventually, we have to ask ourselves why it's so difficult to develop and maintain well-paying jobs that are highly regarded by society. Maybe we're forgetting something more fundamental.

Here's a theory: Most people don't want to be information technologists.

In fact, I would guess that at any particular time, only a small minority of the population is genuinely interested in (and capable of) doing this type of work. This is reflected by the actual number of people in the IT workforce — around 3.5 million, out of a total workforce of 141 million. You don't have to look too far to understand why. Here's a typical example of a job ad for a software engineer in Silicon Valley:

Job description:

Company X looking for senior level engineer to provide technical leadership and implementation skills to help drive the development team to success in producing quality software … to build new and maintain existing medium and large scale web-based applications … focused on developing consumer tools and aggregating data from retailers and make its service available to other sites as they look to increase their ad inventory and consumer value.

Requirements:

  • 3+ years of PHP programming, 7-10+ years of professional programming experience
  • 5+ years of programming within Unix/Linux environments
  • 3-5+ years of Java
  • 5+ years working with Production Relational Database Systems (MySQL, Oracle or Postgres)
  • 3+ years acting as a development lead
  • Perl/BASH/Shell scripting experience
  • Javascript and AJAX experience
  • Very comfortable working with and debugging Apache
  • Strong object-oriented programming skills
  • Oracle and MySQL and PHP integration
  • Working knowledge of Subversion and repositories a plus
  • Experience with Zend IDE and tools a big plus
  • Understanding security issues surrounding deploying distributed, large scale web-based applications
  • Confidence to participate, contribute and lead within a fast-paced, technically aggressive, and highly skilled development team

How many people have the specialized tech background to match the acronym soup in this job description? And of these individuals, how many are going to want to do this job for very long? We can't just assume it's reasonable to turn large portions of the citizenry into software developers, hardware engineers and database analysts just because our economic model demands it.

Some wishful thinkers are suggesting that we can turn poets into programmers if the right education and incentives are available. But coercion through cultural tinkering or monetary incentives will only take us so far. Even in the PwC study, it was noted that less than half of the IT execs reported that base pay was a “highly effective” method of compensation for attracting and retaining employees. Other benefits such as flexible work hours, extra leave, telecommuting and day care support can make a job more bearable, but not more fulfilling.

So it's hard to imagine how we're going to transform our workforce to meet the escalating demands for IT professionals. I propose that if we're going to get beyond the “hunter and gatherer” stage of the Information Society, we're going to have to think about the problem differently. Instead of churning out hordes of technicians, we will need use our precious IT workers more efficiently. From 1750 to 1900, the Agricultural Revolution dramatically reduced the number of farmers by employing advanced food-raising technologies, effectively bringing an end to agricultural-based economies. A true Information Revolution could accomplish the same thing for our IT-based economy.

How might this happen?  I'll talk about this in next week's issue.

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As always, comments about HPCwire are welcomed and encouraged. Write to me, Michael Feldman, at editor@hpcwire.com.