ANALYSIS: IT Worker Shortage--More Than Just Hype

By Sam Albert

A growing IT skills shortage in the country is becoming big news. Independent analysts like the META Group, and government offices like the U.S. departments of commerce and education, are conducting studies on this unsettling trend. To those of us immersed daily in the field of information technology, the new millennium represents a hope that more young people, along with, of course, older professionals, will join the ranks of the "IT skilled."

Frankly, there's too much opportunity--and too much need out there--not to join. Highly skilled IT workers are increasingly recognized as the oil that greases our global, "information age" economy. And the demand for skilled IT professionals is increasing at lightning speed. The U.S. Commerce Department projects that by the year 2006, almost half of U.S. workers will be employed by industries that either produce IT, or are intensive users of it.

But so far, that projection alone hasn't drawn enough new talent to the IT ranks. John Donaldson, a program manager for The Information Technology Association of America (ITAA), reports that an explosive growth in IT employment opportunities is not being met by corresponding--and necessary--adjustments to our education system. He talks about a "serious skills gap, and other disconnects between the worlds of work and learning."

Other findings confirm this. This "disconnect" has occurred for several reasons. First, far too few students are graduating with the technical skills and training needed to fill IT job vacancies. Because the IT labor pool remains so small, many employers now steal from each other, rather than look for innovative ways to grow the pool. (This shortage also creates booming opportunities for those who do have the skills, and who, increasingly, are naming their asking price.)

Second, to take this "disconnect" further back a step, look at the dilemma faced by educators. Only 36 percent of public schools provide teachers with the ongoing technology training they need, according to a survey of American Association of School Administrators. Despite teachers' opinions that technology helps stimulate student achievement, this low percentage persists. Unless these trends are turned around, it's a lose-lose situation for students, teachers, and ultimately, corporations.

Clearly, a call to action of some kind is needed; and has been needed for awhile.

Recently, I took a look at IBM's participation in the ITAA's School-to-Careers program (STC) that ITAA is advocating. IBM's Corporate Community Relations team released a booklet called "School-to-Career Programs and Technology: Partnerships for Student Success," which highlights its involvement in STC activities.

IBM has been a vocal proponent for education reform, most visibly since it began a $35 million initiative, in 1994, to bring innovative technological solutions to public schools. And in 1996, IBM co-hosted the second annual National Education Summit, attended by President Clinton, to align school objectives with the practical skills needed to perform today's jobs. Increasingly, those skills include problem solving, critical thinking and adaptability in the workplace--talent not limited to the IT field, but which should most certainly be closely linked.

With the millennium right around the corner, many people have entered the IT field courtesy of the Y2K bandwagon. Many of these new technicians won't remain after next year. But I hope just as many will, and will stick around to study and learn the latest IT advances as they occur.

IT-STC partnerships are being built rapidly, nationwide and IBM has the right idea by getting into the game. The more Big Blue proactively reaches out to the country's best and brightest, the better its chances of strengthening its own competitive position in the 2000s. I believe--as do IBM and all of its competitors--that a company's skilled workforce is their greatest asset. Skilled Professionals REALLY do make the difference, and I don't think that's a well-kept secret in today's competitive landscape. Let's see who wins on this battleground to capture the scarce but all important HR component!

Sam Albert is president of Sam Albert Associates (Scarsdale, N.Y.), a consulting firm that specializes in developing strategic corporate relationships. samalbert@samalbert.com.