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1/9/2008
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Yes, The Tech Skills Shortage Is Real

The IT skills famine plaguing the United States is only going to get worse.

OUTSOURCING ISN'T THE ANSWER
The Society for Information Management, in its continuing concern about the IT workforce, recently sponsored a survey of top IT management to determine the skills and capabilities they want to hire and develop within their organizations, and what they would obtain through service providers. The results indicate that while some IT skills in the purely technical areas (e.g., programming) will be obtained through sourcing from service providers, employers still have a strong need for IT professionals who have a combination of technical and business-related skills--such as business and industry knowledge and project management and communications skills. In addition, these IT executives expressed a concern that such individuals are in short supply.

Overall, while very large organizations (more than $3 billion in revenue) and medium-sized organizations ($500 million to $3 billion) are both increasing the amount of work they send to service providers, companies with less than $500 million in revenue are increasing their in-house IT staffs more than increasing their outsourcing activities. Since such businesses make up 99% of U.S. businesses (according to the U.S. Small Business Administration in 2006), this is a significant source of jobs.

chart: Where the IT jobs are?
What this research and other projects that have been carried out are saying is that the market for individuals with IT-related skills is growing. The growth is in IT organizations within client companies that buy IT products and sourcing services, and at IT service providers, domestically and globally.

YOUTH MOVEMENT
The challenge is motivating and educating young emerging workers--as well as their parents and career counselors--to recognize the IT career potential so they'll seek IT-related positions.

The United States faces a challenge in the global economy. Many countries in Asia and Europe are more successful at educating and training their upcoming workforce in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) skills that are being demanded by the marketplace and, as a result, are competing with the United States in providing talent in the IT arena. In math literacy, the United States ranked 24th out of 29 nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Universities in the United States should continue to augment these science, technology, engineering, and math skills along with the skills being demanded by employers--such as business, industry, communications--to ensure that these candidates are prepared for the challenges and opportunities that await them.

IT and innovation have kept the U.S. economy a leader in the global marketplace. For that to continue, the key stakeholders in the United States must work together to revitalize the appropriate pipeline of candidates. Who are the key stakeholders? Private industry, educational systems at all levels, and government agencies all have important roles to play in solving the skills famine. It's imperative to reverse the negative perceptions that students, parents, and guidance counselors have developed because of the dot-com disaster and the subsequent inaccurate fear that all technology-related jobs would move offshore. A basic grounding in science, math, technology, business, and communications must be ensured beginning at the K-12 level.

In the past, the United States inspired young people to get into STEM education with a national vision: to put a man on the moon. This national mandate worked beyond anyone's expectations and illustrates how a shared vision can drive a desired outcome. We have no analogous vision today to inspire the youth in the United States.

This is why all the stakeholders must work together to derive a plan to inform students about the opportunities that a career in IT can have. A few of the major players in the field, specifically IBM and Microsoft along with SIM, are investing in programs to this end. They're working at the high school and college levels to bring excitement into the process of letting young people know about the IT opportunities. Some organizations have begun mentoring programs in colleges, where senior IT professionals work with students to generate enthusiasm.

chart: Projected increases between 2006 and 2016
These have been isolated efforts and there is a need to bring these together, grow the programs, and reach out to more students and regions. Government must also realize the impact of the shortage of IT skilled labor and work toward providing incentives, supporting scholarships, and broadcasting the need for people in IT-related careers. Government and academia must commit to educating a new generation of mathematically, scientifically, and business-adept Americans. Other government programs can be directed at increasing funding for research and development and working with the private sector and universities to increase the number of these graduates.

The downward trend in American university students enrolling in computer science and IT-related programs has leveled and is beginning to slowly reverse. This is good news, but it's not happening quickly enough to overcome the combination of the current thin pipeline and the impending baby boomer retirement.

Increased sourcing to offshore locations is becoming a necessity for many organizations as they fail to find the talent they need within the United States. For this to movement change, the key stakeholders (i.e., business, academia, vendors, government, and advisers) must begin active and aggressive programs to bring people back into the IT career track. There is a clearly a shortage of IT talent for the foreseeable future--unless we make a concerted effort to work together to ensure that we quickly turn it around.

-- with Rajkumar Kempaiah and Christine Bullen

Dr. Jerry Luftman is a professor at the Stevens Institute of Technology, where he's also executive director of Stevens' graduate information systems programs. Before that, he spent 22 years with IBM. He's also a VP at the Society for Information Management.

Illustration by Brian Stauffer

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No, The Tech Skills Shortage Doesn't Exist

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