The New Math: Seeking The I.T. Workforce's True Size

The true size of the IT workforce depends on your definition of IT
What do 3.3 million and 10.4 million have in common? They both represent the size of America's IT workforce.

The lower number is based on an analysis of U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data derived from the monthly survey of 60,000 households that determines the national unemployment rate. The higher number comes from the Information Technology Association of America's annual poll of 500 hiring managers. How can government and the trade group, which represents IT vendors, be so far apart?

The answer can be found at Liquid Pictures, a four-employee company that creates computer-generated animations. Owner Zachary Rymland turns to senior animator Piyatida Shiozaki when he needs extra aesthetics in an animation. Shiozaki, with a master's degree in computer arts, doesn't think of herself as a technologist. Senior animator Jeffrey Reynolds is the resident techie, a math whiz who customizes and automates processes to generate a complex animation.

Are they artists or IT pros? The Labor Department likely says they're artists; ITAA, technology workers. Shiozaki and Reynolds are the 7.2 million gap.

The government uses a system known as Standard Occupation Classifications that defines more than 820 occupations. Animators are grouped with artists. IT-related occupations include computer-IS manager, computer scientists, systems analysts, computer programmers, and other typical IT job titles.

IT Workforce Gap

ITAA uses a classification system created by the National Workforce Center for Emerging Technologies, a group committed to developing a skilled IT workforce. That system includes a wider range of job titles, including animator, online publisher, and technical writer.

The center's job listing reflects today's business IT needs, ITAA senior VP Bob Cohen says. "The government's standard is more a traditional view that has been somewhat slow to evolve and fails to reflect the broad penetration of IT into the all facets of business."

To add to this confusion, a division in the Bureau of Labor Statistics queries businesses every six months about occupations. An analysis of the latest data from this unit puts IT employment at about 300,000 below the number from the household survey. The difference is that the business survey fails to account for freelance IT workers, bureau economist Patrick Kilcoyne says.

It's the household data that's most often discussed since it comes out monthly and quarterly, allowing the study of IT labor trends throughout the year. The disparity probably will grow as IT gets ever-more ingrained in business processes and having deep IT and business knowledge becomes the dominant blend. Are Shiozaki and Reynolds animators or IT pros? The picture is only likely to get less clear in the future.