IT skills shortage — fact or fiction?

Commodification of technology workers may be behind lack of candidates, argues Linda Musthaler

For several years we’ve been reading news stories about the impending shortage of skilled IT workers. The predictions have been fairly dire: as baby boomers retire and fewer young people join the IT workforce, hundreds of thousands of jobs in the US and other Western countries will go unfilled. IT projects will languish because companies can’t find the workers with the right skills to staff them. More imported workers will be needed and we’ll have to send more work overseas to outsourcers.

Baloney!

There’s no shortage of smart, employable IT workers. There is a shortage of flexible employers who are willing to hire people who don’t match an exact, niche profile or have a very specific skill or type of experience. There is a shortage of companies willing to invest in the training and development of enthusiastic and committed employees. There is a shortage of organisations that see their employees as long-term assets and not as overhead that can be ditched at the first hint of a bad financial quarter. There is a shortage of organisations willing to implement formal mentoring and internship programmes that will help the next generation of employees grow into the labour force for the long haul.

Too many employers have set their sights on the ideal candidates — the ones who come with the right degrees, the right credentials and the right project experience. Heaven help the candidate who lacks a certification, or who has extensive experience with one application and not another. They’ll never get noticed, because the candidate-screening software has already chucked them into the waste bin. The software doesn’t know, of course, that someone with good Windows administration skills can learn Linux skills to become the new Linux administrator who’s desperately needed.

A recent editorial in the San Jose Mercury News by Stanford University’s Christopher Moylan made me stand up and cheer. Moylan’s story is about scientific and engineering jobs in Silicon Valley, where he lives, but the same can be said about IT jobs across in many countries.

Moylan accuses companies of setting themselves up for the worker shortage. He cites examples of firms that disgorged tons of highly skilled workers during the economic downturn of a few years ago. While many of these workers took lower-paying jobs in different fields, their former employers scream that they can’t find enough workers today. At the same time, these companies have cut pay and benefits, and eliminated the notion of job security, making it less likely that graduates will ever want to enter the fields in need of workers.

Closer to home, my husband holds a degree in management information systems. He has more than 20 years’ experience in computer programming, systems analysis and design, business systems integration, and internal controls and audit. His entire career has been in the energy industry — not exactly a dying industry. His education, skills and experience would make him the ideal candidate to lead a Sarbanes-Oxley-inspired compliance project at a major organisation. Yet when he applies for jobs, he hears “you’re overqualified” or “you don’t have a Certified Information Systems Auditor certification” as the excuse for passing him over. These companies have no idea about the high calibre of worker they have just overlooked.

So is there an IT skills shortage? Well, it depends on how narrowly you define “skills”. If it means the person must be perfect for the job on day one, then maybe we do have a shortage of workers. If it means that people who possess most of the desired qualifications can be given some training and a bit of time to grow into the job, then no, there’s no skills shortage — just a shortage of companies with the patience and wisdom to invest in their workforce.

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