Behind the White House’s claim of 545,000 unfilled IT jobs

President Obama at the State of the Union 2015
Credit: Pete Souza

Feds used an analysis of help-wanted jobs from a third party

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Earlier this week, the White House announced a plan to use $100 million in H-1B fees to help train people for technology jobs. To make its case for this new program, it said there were 545,000 "unfilled jobs" in information technology.

This claim of more than half-million available IT jobs needs a lot of explanation.

It was based on data from one source that doesn't account for normal churn in the labor market, meaning that these jobs do not represent an explosion in new job demand.

White House jobs estimate White House

The White House data point doesn't tell you how many of these jobs are for contract or contingent workers.

This unfilled-jobs data also doesn't explain a decline in starting salaries for computer science bachelor degree graduates, reported by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE).

In a footnote, the White House cited two sources for its data, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) and labor analytics firm Burning Glass Technologies, which analyzes help-wanted ads.

In creating its data, the White House used BLS data showing 5 million job openings overall in the U.S. But, a BLS spokeswoman said, it doesn't have a separate breakout for IT occupations.

This means that the administration's 545,000 unfilled IT jobs figure is based on the Burning Glass analysis. It arrived at this by counting the number of jobs over a 90-day period leading up to President Barack Obama's State of the Union address on Jan. 20, according to Dan Restuccia, chief analytics officer at Burning Glass.

Estimates on the size of the IT labor force can vary depending on which occupational groups are counted. Burning Glass puts it at about 3.5 million, and uses Occupational Information Network (O*NET), a computer and mathematical occupations category.

The analytics firms pulls job postings from about 50,000 sites, gathers occupations, industries, specific skills, certifications, degrees, salary if available and other data and then runs it through a deduplication process that sets aside about 80% of the job postings and keeps the unique ones, said Restuccia.

The White House number doesn't identify which job postings are the result of churn, or due to people within the workforce who are moving to other jobs or new demand from expanded hiring.

But what each job posting represents for a job seeker is "a chance to go get a job," said Restuccia. He said the point of the White House's use of this data was "to highlight the importance of IT jobs across the market."

Burning Glass's approach draws concerns from Hal Salzman, a professor of planning and public policy at Rutgers University, who studies the science and engineering workforce. "They claim they deduplicate, but they don't publish their methodology; there is no external verification," he said.

Salzman believes the deduplication can be a challenge with job ads. In Salzman's own research, he has run across jobs that are posted in multiple cities that appear as if they are specific to each of those cities. The recruiters are doing this to keep prospects from automatically rejecting the job because of location, he said.

Restuccia believes their data is getting independent verification from its use. He said the White House's Council of Economic Advisors vetted its data before using it, and groups such as the Brookings Institution have used it their data to discover, in a report, that job openings for STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) jobs take longer to fill than do openings in other fields.

Burning Glass has been in business since 1999, and its customers will use its data in many ways, including examining specific hiring trends, recruiting, what skills are hard to fill and competitive intelligence. Salzman says the most recent BLS data shows about 120,000 new hires in computer occupations, representing people being replaced due to retirement, for instance, as well as expansion.

Although the White House doesn't raise the issue of temporary H-1B workers in its training push, the use of the half-million plus job openings in its announcement creates a data point for supporters of raising the H-1B cap. But Salzman argues -- something he did along with other researchers in an Economic Policy Institute paper -- that the U.S. has a sufficient supply of STEM workers, and that the demand for guest workers isn't in large part due to unmet demand but instead meant to replace the existing supply or existing workforce.

Wage trends are also indicator of demand, and last April NACE reported that that the mean starting salary for computer science bachelor's degree graduates in 2014 was $67,300. The organization recently predicted that this year's starting salary will average $61,287, a 9% drop, wrote Norm Matloff, a professor of computer science at the University of California-Davis who has long disputed the idea that there's a technical talent shortage.

NACE has "shown in the past few years that computer science graduate salaries have basically been flat — up 2% one year, down 3% the next," wrote Matloff on his blog. "But the current figures show the biggest one-year change I can ever recall seeing -- and it is downward," he said.

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