Coping With the Shortage of High Tech Workers

Computer World

The biggest threat to America's booming IT sector is a severe shortage of
skilled people. Some estimates put the current shortfall at 400,000. What's
to be done?

In most industries facing such shortages, salary levels rise until enough
people are attracted to fill the need. Supply responds to demand.

But, as you'll see in Computerworld's 13th Annual Salary Survey ("Return
to Sanity,"), salaries in the corporate IT sector have been rising no faster
than in most other parts of the economy. There's no beating the free
market: If the IT sector wants more skilled people, it is going to have to
pay for them.

And salaries don't even tell the whole story. IT jobs are becoming less
secure. The half-life of a software engineer is coming to resemble that of a
professional athlete. One recent survey shows that six years after getting
their computer science degrees, 60% of graduates are working as
software engineers; 20 years out, only 19% are still at it. And the falloff
seems to be getting steeper.

Many IT professionals tell me it's hard to keep up. When technology is
continuously exploding, as in IT, long-term experience counts for less.
Some IT professionals luck out by catching the right wave. But others tank,
or they catch the wrong wave and get beached.

Starting salaries don't make up for the risky ride. Young people aren't
dumb. Despite the generous terms, they see the risk ahead, and they
decide against IT.

So what can IT organizations and companies do about this, in addition to
paying more? First: Give stock options. That way, IT professionals can get
a piece of the action even if their skills suddenly become obsolete.

Second: Help IT professionals keep their skills sharp. Move them into
projects on the cutting edge. Rotate them, so they get exposed to a lot of
new ideas.

Third: Grow your own. Just two weeks ago, major IT employers in Omaha
unveiled a $70 million technology and engineering institute. "It used to be
that we would go to recruiting fairs and take what we could get," says Bill
Fairfield, CEO of Inacom, a $4 billion computer services company that
helped start the institute. "But today, we're trying to shape the students."

Fourth: Recruit more aggressively. Reach out to smaller rural communities
and to women and minorities. There's a lot of talent out there just waiting
to be found. Create real opportunities and career ladders for these people.

But there's something I wouldn't recommend, because it's not a long-term
solution. Don't go to Washington to fight for allowing more foreign
engineers and designers to enter the U.S. on temporary H-1B visas. That
may help in the short term, but it doesn't deal with the underlying problem.
It won't create a permanently bigger stream of IT professionals for the
future.

America's buoyant economy is a testament to the dynamism of its IT
sector.

But for IT to stay dynamic, more Americans will have to become a part of it.

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