The greying of the IT workforce continues

It's getting hard to find replacements for retiring tech staff, says Linda Musthaler

When I went to an IT technical conference recently, the first thing that struck me was how old the attendees were. Most seemed to be men and women in their 40s, 50s and even 60s. Baby boomers at their best — what I used to call "grey hairs" before I became one of them.

What makes this observation significant? It's an example of the aging of the American workforce, and specifically the people who hold IT positions.

The aging workforce is garnering the attention of employers who are starting to lose employees to retirement. According to the AARP, the US Association for the Advancement of Retired Persons, 13% of the US workforce in 2000 was 55 or older. The US Department of Labour expects this number to increase to 17% by 2010. These are workers in all types of jobs and industries.

Let's look at the microcosm of IT professionals. According to former US Secretary of Labour Robert Reich, US businesses will need 21 million new IT workers in the next five years. However, a shortfall of at least four million is predicted. The US Computing Research Association says the number of students choosing computer science as a field of study decreased 39% from 2000 to 2004. The dot-com bust and fears of an insecure future have led students to pursue other professions.

Companies exacerbated the problem during the recent recession by laying off large numbers of IT workers. Many of these people left the profession because they couldn't find another job. Companies also stopped hiring entry-level workers who would start basically as apprentices and be ready to take over IT roles when older workers retire. When the grey hairs retire, who will do the work? Smart companies will start now to prepare for the future IT workforce.

There is good news, however. The future workforce will likely include many older workers who don't want (or can't afford) to retire completely. AARP reports that nearly 70% of workers aged 45 to 74 say they want to continue working in some capacity. An innovative employer might be able to retain workers by offering reduced work hours, a flexible schedule or lighter responsibilities.

Here are a few more ideas to reinforce your IT workforce and prepare your company for the impact of fewer IT workers:

1. Retain. If you value your older workers, make sure they know it. Ask them what it would take to keep them working for you. More flexible hours? More challenging projects? Telecommuting? If you can accommodate their needs, they are more likely to contribute longer to your business.

2. Recruit. Don't ignore the low end of the ladder. Bring in new recruits so they can begin preparing to step into jobs with more responsibility. A study commissioned by the American Society for Information Management indicates that companies are still looking to entry-level hires to fill technical positions such as system administrator, helpdesk worker or programmer. Although these are the types of jobs that are typically outsourced, they serve a purpose in developing the next generation of workers.

3. Mentor. Many companies are establishing formal or informal mentoring programs to help less-experienced workers learn the ropes from those with more experience. Mentoring helps knowledge pass from one person to another.

4. Build skills. Ensure that your workers get the training they need to build skills for now and the future. This is especially true for older workers whose technical knowledge might be a bit stale. You'll keep them in the workforce longer if their skills are needed tomorrow as well as today.

5. Consolidate. In addition to preparing the people, you can prepare your datacentre as well. Move towards technologies that require less care and feeding or fewer people to manage them. Virtualisation, lights-out management and application integration tools all promise that you can do more with fewer resources, including people.

The competition to hire and retain skilled IT workers is fierce, and the situation is likely to get worse before it gets better. When the grey hairs log off for the last time, you don't want to be scrambling for help.

Musthaler is a principal analyst at Essential Solutions, a Houston technology assessment firm. She can be reached at lmusthaler@essential-iws

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