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If there’s really an IT labor shortage … (first appeared in InfoWorld)

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In July of 1973 I returned from a semester abroad in Guatemala to find that gasoline was in short supply, prices had tripled, and if you wanted to fill your tank you had to wait in line.

A long line.

Then some wise guy started rumors of a toilet paper shortage. Predictably, huge crowds of worried consumers descended on supermarkets around the country like hordes of locusts on wheat crops, snarfing up every package of the stuff they could, stockpiling this vital commodity against the predicted dearth.

There was, of course, no shortage. The expectation, though, had the same impact as a real one, although for a shorter time.

Employers perceive the existence of a serious shortage of IT professionals right now. So why do so many give the employees they have so little reason to stay?

We’re all nuts. As evidence, the June 29 issue of Business Week, citing the Bureau of Labor Statistics, said that over the past decade, programmers’ pay has lost 1.5% to inflation. Here’s a hint to all you capitalist geniuses out there who run our companies: The law of supply and demand says that if something is in short supply and high demand, prices go up or we get a shortage.

If there really is a shortage, shouldn’t companies be trying to reduce turnover by treating employees better and paying them more? It’s more affordable than spending the full year’s salary plus benefits it generally costs to replace each employee who leaves.

Maybe this means there is no shortage. The statistics cited to demonstrate the shortage show that while 95,000 new IT jobs will be created this year, only 25,000 new computer science majors will graduate.

Inferring a shortage from this data turns out to be wrong. I’m indebted to fellow Perot Systems-ite Robert Fendley for pointing me to the evidence – research by Norman Matloff at the University of California at Davis (check out http://heather.cs.ucdavis.edu/itaa.real.html for more details).

Matloff’s research is revealing. It turns out that about 25 percent of today’s IT workers have computer science degrees. Now let’s see … 25,000 computer science graduates divided by 95,000 new jobs comes to … well I’ll be hornswoggled! We’re in exactly the same shape we’ve always been.

What a surprise. Want to quadruple the number of qualified applicants? If you’re screening out applicants who lack computer science degrees, you have an easy solution. (Something to ponder: Since most hiring managers lack computer science degrees themselves, does this mean they wouldn’t give themselves an interview?)

A lot of our shortage is self-inflicted. The absolutely stupid practice of requiring computer science degrees, which causes HR to keep three-quarters of your potential workforce away from you, is the just the most obvious example. (Memo to our competitors: Please keep on doing this. Thanks.)

Here’s another example of how most of the problem stems from our own ridiculous expectations: Many of us hire “only top-quality applicants.”

One of 10 IS professionals I’ve known were top quality. That isn’t surprising, though, since I define “top quality” as being among the upper 10 percent. The entire workforce could double in ability and we’d still have a shortage of top-quality people.

I’m in favor of hiring great people, but you have to be realistic. Want to hire only the best? Pay top dollar and create great working conditions. The best can afford to be very choosy.

Your alternative: Hire some of the best. Also hire some journeymen programmers, and implement great processes so they can maximize their contribution to your success. And be willing to train promising applicants who have the right aptitude and attitude, understand the business, and want to learn technology.

I’ve heard from an awesome number of IS Survivalists whose backgrounds are in mathematics, physics, chemistry, the military, anthropology, international studies, or clerical work. Despite their lack of computer science training, they are successful IS professionals.

Often they are more successful than their computer science co-workers, in fact, because these supposedly less-qualified people acquired their skills solving real-world problems and stayed in the field because they showed both an aptitude and an affinity for the work.

Why, oh why, do so many companies deliberately ignore people like this?