IT Management

IT Sense: The Coming Crunch in IT Labor

A recent report from the Computer Technology Industry Association (CompTIA) in Oak Brook, IL, paints a bleak near-term picture about IT human resources. As baby boomers leave the workplace over the next six years, about 4 million of 21 million IT jobs in the U.S. will go unfilled. This prognosis is underscored by the survey data collected by Computing Research Association in Washington, DC. Incoming college freshmen continue to demonstrate a diminished interest in pursuing a tech degree, whether computer science or computer engineering. Lack of interest in technology has fallen to 1971 levels, when less than 1 percent of college enrollees set out to pursue degrees or careers in computing.

CRA offers one explanation: Tech degree programs aren’t appealing to female students, who comprise the growing majority of total college enrollees. There’s a paucity of female role models in tech: no Wilhelmina Gates or Lucy Torvalds to show the way.

Moreover, the dotcom debacle seems to have taken the blush off the tech rose. Virtually no one expects to walk from their college dorm into a high-paying tech career with a quick multi-million dollar payoff anymore. Computer geeks have returned to their original status in the college pecking order: bottom feeders with bad hygiene and zero personality.

Then, there’s the specter of mom or dad, if they were tech careerists. Kids have been quick to note the visible toll the last few years of budgetary belt-tightening and no growth salary/benefit packages have taken on them. Who in their right mind aspires to be a frustrated, underpaid, poorly treated grunt after 20 years of slaving in the server farms and mainframe glass house of Engulf and Devour Corp.?

Often, mom and dad contribute to this view, sharing their woes of work in many larger companies where tech has fallen prey to new vendor strategies that target the front-office (the CEO, CFO, or COO) rather than the corporate technologists in order to make a sale. Even senior-most managers, CIOs and IT managers, like a friend of mine at a very large North American bank, have decided to bail. In my friend’s case, the vendor took the senior managers of the company off in its private jet to a world-class golf outing, returning with their signature on a multi-year deal that requires the company to source only from the vendor’s wares. Too bad the capacity of the solution they proposed to replace the IBM gear already on the raised floor was insufficient to host the data amassed by the bank. After a lot of hair-pulling and blank stares from the pro-vendor business managers, my friend wrote to me to say he was out. In his words, “Man should only put up with stupidity for a small time.”

The experts are saying that some of the growing personnel shortfall will be offset by the additional use of offshore labor pools. To hear them tell it, for every U.S. kid who decides against pursuing a thankless and joyless tech career, there are dozens of others in India and China and other countries who would kill for the jobs. They will take up some of the slack, to be sure.

Another popular concept: mentoring. In this story, boomers retire, but they come back on a part-time consulting basis to teach others about the applications they once maintained. In their view, COBOL will become an oral tradition, handed down from aging practitioners to younger players—especially as colleges abandon it for sexier languages such as C# favored by the .NET-ing, Xboxaddicted generation.

Not to sound completely cynical, I must say that my college degrees aren’t in computer engineering, but in political science and international political economy/security affairs. I found my way to tech several years after graduation and, through the good graces of a female MIS director, who thought everyone on her staff should be cross-trained in all the platforms, networks and even voice switches that filled our data center and equipment rooms, sent me to all the best vendor schools, including IBM, Bell Labs, etc.

In fact, it probably helped me that my educational degrees weren’t in technical fields. A narrow career focus might have cost me my love of languages, history, philosophy, music, and all the other aspects of a well-rounded liberal arts education that have continued to provide a richer existence over the years. Doubtless, given a culture of company-sponsored training, the technical disciplines can pull from the broader pool of employable talent.

The only worry I have today is that I don’t see much willingness among employers to spring for the kind of on-the- job training and development that will cultivate the mission-critical data managers they will need going forward. Hopefully, such programs haven’t been cut from an IT budget already hamstrung by less than 5 percent annual growth in most Global 2000 companies.

Forget the SAN. In the final analysis, people are the strategic asset. Z