The IT rust belt

Of all the requests for advice I receive, the hardest come either from college graduates and career changers wanting to know how to break into IT or from older programmers who want to write code until they retire but can't even get an interview.

"Mother, mother ocean / After all the years I've found / My occupational hazard being / My occupation's just not around."

-- Jimmy Buffet, "A Pirate Looks at 40"

Of all the requests for advice I receive, the hardest come either from college graduates and career changers wanting to know how to break into IT or from older programmers who want to write code until they retire but can't even get an interview. They've been sold on the idea that proficiency with computers practically guarantees employment. Now, in the US at least, nobody wants 'em.

I'd love to offer hope and great advice. Regrettably, the best advice I have is this: find a different field of endeavour. Unless you're in the top rank, there's little future for you in IT.

The supply of programmers exceeds demand and that drives down prices -- your wages. That's because the genie of globalisation is out of the bottle, and it's going to stay out of the bottle at least until the internet closes shop.

Twenty years ago, the same thing happened to factory jobs. US factory workers were unionised, which simply meant that instead of keeping jobs and accepting lower wages, their jobs went away altogether as the factories relocated to the Philippines, Malaysia and Taiwan. Now it's our turn: Indian and Asian programmers work as hard as or harder than their American counterparts, and for lower wages.

It's easy to blame greedy CEOs for this mess, but employers aren't just being greedy when they shift these jobs to foreign workers. If they don't and their competitors do, they have to charge more for the same products and services. Not exactly a formula for success. And when business shifts to the competitors, the jobs do too -- overseas.

Nor would changing the H-1B special occupation visa programme -- or even eliminating it altogether -- help. Whether foreign programmers come here or programming jobs go there, the result is the same except for which country collects the income tax. Foreign programmers produce code just as good as that coded by American programmers. For less. Are you willing to compete?

Is this a good thing? Not for the average US citizen, I imagine, although it will help keep prices down when we're shopping.

Not every IT job will move overseas, of course. Much of management will remain, as will jobs where proximity, linguistic ability and cultural familiarity are important, like network administration, systems analysis, user-interface design, helpdesk and project management. Nor will all programming jobs move overseas, of course. Plenty of US factories remain open, too. But the trend is clear, and it means an increasing number of American programmers will be competing for a decreasing number of jobs.

So if you still want a programming career, here's the best advice I have: expect to work harder for less.

Are you more optimistic? Send any comments to Lewis, who heads IS Survivor Training, which organises leading high-performance IT. Send letters for publication in Computerworld to Computerworld Letters.

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