Study: IT worker unemployment at 'unprecedented' levels

DALLAS (09/17/2003) - Unemployment for IT workers reached 6 percent this year, an "unprecedented" level for a profession that was once a sure path to a well-paying job, according to a new study that also found that foreign-born workers now account for a fifth of all IT employees in the U.S. The report also found that the percentage of laid-off foreign-born IT workers is slightly higher than for U.S.-born workers.

The study, which was presented at a congressional forum Wednesday by the Washington-based nonprofit group Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology (CPST), affirms what IT managers have seen in response to help-wanted ads. "I'm sure the number is 6 percent or higher," said Michael Russo, a data center manager at Wyeth, a Madison, N.J.-based pharmaceuticals giant.

A recent third-shift job in the company's operational data center drew 168 applicants. "There are a lot of people who are out of work," Russo said.

Randy Rosenthal, manager of computer operations at Southwest Securities Group Inc. in Dallas, has seen the same trend: highly qualified people with multiple degrees applying for jobs IT managers once had trouble filling. "That tells me that 6 percent has hit the IT area pretty hard," he said.

About 150,000 IT positions were lost in 2001 and 2002, about two-thirds of them in programming, the report said.

Two years ago, Phoenix-based water and electric utility Salt River Project had an open position for an operations analyst and received about 15 applications; last year, it posted a similar position and had 50 applicants. This year the 800,000-customer utility has a hiring freeze, said operations manager Dewayne Nelsen.

There was a sense of grim resignation about the latest report among some IT managers at a conference held here by AFCOM, an Orange, Calif.-based data center managers user group.

Several IT managers, some requesting that their names not be used, told of data center consolidations that led to layoffs or offshore plans. For the future, automation improvements and the development of "self-healing" applications will also hurt some IT career paths. The career advice from one IT manager was to avoid the technical aspects of the profession and focus more on IT management training.

IT unemployment rates were as low as 1.2 percent in 1997, shooting up to 4.3 percent in 2002.

But the overall number of IT jobs has seen remarkable growth, tripling in the past 20 years, according to the CPST, which conducts labor force and educational research for a range of scientific organizations and companies. The IT labor force grew from 719,000 jobs in 1983 to 2.5 million at its peak in 2000.

With the growth of IT came an increasing reliance upon foreign workers. This increase was facilitated by legislation expanding the use of H-1B visas, which allow skilled foreign workers to take jobs in the U.S. for up to six years. A cap of 195,000 on the number of visas that can be issued has been in place for each of the past three years, but the cap will drop to 65,000 on Oct. 1. L-1 visas, which allow companies to transfer foreign employees into the U.S., have tripled in use.

The report, sponsored by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation in New York and the United Engineering Foundation, an umbrella organization for engineering groups, draws no firm conclusion on the offshore outsourcing trend. But it recognizes predictions made by analyst firms, including Gartner Inc., which in July estimated that 10 percent of all U.S. professional jobs in IT services companies would be transferred overseas, along with 5 percent of IT positions in other businesses.

Long term, the report says more research is needed on the effects of offshore outsourcing and the workforce issues raised by it: "Can the U.S. continue to be a prime market for the rest of the world if it is a stronghold for neither manufacturing nor technical services?" the report asks. "What are the long-run implications of these trends for American standards of living?"

The CPST report concludes that while the job market for IT professionals has weakened, it remains sizable.

"For the near run, normal turnover alone will generate opportunities for people who are determined to work in the field," the report said. "The long-run outlook is more problematic. The United States does not lack, either now or in the foreseeable future, sufficient numbers of capable people who would like to work in IT. But those people may not be willing to conclude that long-run demands for their services will be good enough to support IT as a sensible career choice."

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