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7/28/2004
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IT Jobs Continue To Disappear

An analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows nearly 160,000 IT jobs have disappeared in the past three years, while the IT unemployment rate has nearly doubled since 2000.

Nearly 160,000 fewer Americans call themselves IT professionals today than three years ago. Despite fewer workers within the profession, the IT unemployment rate has nearly doubled since the beginning of the millennium.

According to an analysis by InformationWeek of U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics employment data, the number of IT managers has soared since 2000, while the ranks of computer programmers and computer scientists-systems analysts has plummeted.

The IT labor force--those who consider themselves IT professionals, whether employed or unemployed--fell to 3.4 million during the first half of 2004, down from a five-year peak of nearly 3.6 million in 2001. That represents a 4.5% decline in the IT labor force. At the apex, Americans employed in IT approached 3.5 million; this year, that number fell to 3.2 million, a decline of nearly 7% in three years.

IT unemployment, which hovered just below 3% in 2000 and 2001 before businesses felt the full brunt of the dot-com collapse and recession, has stabilized between 5.5% and 6% over the past three years. During the first six months of this year, IT joblessness averaged 5.5%.

Each month, the Census Bureau queries 60,000 households about employment, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics mines the results of that survey to determine the monthly unemployment rate it reports the first Friday of each month. The Bureau of Labor Statistics also publishes, but does not publicize, employment and unemployment data for hundreds of job categories. Because each job classification--such as database administrators--is a relatively small sample size compared with the overall survey, economists contend they're statistically less reliable, resulting in the government's reluctance to publicly circulate the data. To improve the reliability of our analysis, InformationWeek aggregated a half-year's worth of data.

This is the first time current employment data can be compared with statistics reported earlier in the decade. In 2003, the government began a new way of defining jobs, making comparisons to earlier years impossible. Recently, the Bureau of Labor Statistics recalculated data from 2000, 2001, and 2002 to conform to current job classification definitions, making comparisons back to 2000 possible.

Within the IT field, eight job categories exist: computer-IS manager, computer scientists-systems analysts, computer programmers, computer software engineers, computer support specialists, database administrators, network-computer systems administrators, and network systems-data communications analysts.

The IT job category that experienced the biggest percentage workforce increase is managers, up nearly 60% from 2000 to 2004. In the first half of 2000, 214,000 IT managers were in the workforce; four years later that number stood at 341,000, an increase of 127,000.

The rise in IT managers isn't all that surprising. Don't equate manager with supervisor. True, many managers do supervise, but not all of them. The Census Bureau, which conducts the household survey, defines computer-IT managers as those who plan, direct, or coordinate activities in fields such as electronic data processing, information systems, systems analysis, and computer programming. Thus, a senior systems analyst who plans and coordinates the implementation of a new system could be classified as a manager, not a systems analyst.

The biggest IT job category--computer software engineers--grew to 816,000, up from 757,000 in 2000, a nearly 8% increase. Other IT jobs seeing an increase in workforce numbers between the first halves of 2000 and 2004: database administrators, nearly doubling from 47,000 to 92,000, network-computer systems administrators, up 36% from 135,000 to 184,000, and network systems-data communications analysts, up 6% from 305,000 to 323,000.

The bulk of the IT workforce loss occurred among computer scientists-systems analysts, programmers, and support specialists. In 2000, there were 893,000 computer scientists-systems analysts--more than any other IT job category. Since then, nearly a quarter of American computer scientists-systems analysts--some 209,000--have vanished from the workforce. Also, 132,000 computer programmers disappeared during that period, falling 17% from 764,000 in the first half of 2000 to 632,000 earlier this year. The number of computer support specialists fell by 28,000, from 366,000 to 338,000, an 8% decline. Businesses may need fewer programmers and analysts as they move away from customized applications and employ off-the-shelf software. "It makes more sense if businesses are moving away from programmer-analyst positions to managers since there's more involvement with working with vendors than with the specific details of programming," says Karen Kosanovich, a Bureau of Labor Statistics economist.

The IT job classification with the lowest unemployment for the first half of 2004 was database administrators, at 2.8%; the highest was computer programmers, at 8.3%. But because the sample size for each one is small, doubts can be raised about the data's reliability.

Unemployment by profession is hard to pinpoint because of the small size of the sample for each job classification. With that in mind, here are the unemployment rates for the eight professional IT occupations: database administrators, 2.8%; software engineers, 3.2%; computer/IS managers, 4.6%; network/computer systems administrators, 4.9%; support specialists, 5.3%; computer scientists/systems analysts, 5.7%; network-computer systems analysts, 8.2%; and computer programmers, 8.3%. As a comparison, overall unemployment during the first half of 2004 stood at nearly 5.3%.

Among all management occupations, unemployment averaged nearly 2.7%. IT managers didn't do as well; the unemployment rate for computer-IT managers was 4.6% during the first half of 2004.

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