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Opinion: Why Good Technologists Are Hard to Find

IT has gotten a bad rap that hurts its reputation as a top-notch career path

March 20, 2006 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - At the recent Computerworld Premier 100 conference, IT leaders searched for a clear pathway through many challenges: the rising tide of globalization, offshoring, mergers and acquisitions, and rapid technological change. Attendees debated how to make postmerger IT integration projects move more quickly and how to consolidate infrastructure while innovating in areas such as enterprise data warehouses and analytics applications that can cut costs and generate revenues.

One of the more perplexing conundrums, and an area where the answers should be clearer, is the challenge of finding enough highly skilled technologists. "The shortage of IT talent is a major challenge to staying competitive," lamented one P100 honoree in a panel discussion. But where IT sees a shortage, the public may have a different view.

In the broadest sense, there is no shortage. Technically speaking, there is exactly enough trained IT talent in the U.S. market to fill all available positions at the current salary levels. That doesn't mean that the labor market isn't tight or that it's not difficult to find a qualified engineer in Plano, Texas. But those who put all of the blame on public schools, higher education and a lack of interest by the next generation are forgetting something: Students have always poured into the most lucrative and promising careers. If IT salaries doubled tomorrow, college students might give IT another look and start switching majors; the flow of newly minted technologists would quickly increase.

If only it were that easy. Money is just part of the solution. Today's students need to know that IT is a viable long-term career path. Unfortunately, industry and the media have been complicit in propagating the myth that IT is a dead end. First, the dot-com crash shattered the illusion that those in high-tech jobs would always emerge from economic turbulence unscathed. Now, students are hearing that a four-year degree in programming or engineering doesn't matter because all of those jobs will eventually go offshore to foreign workers at very low wages. A generation has been dissuaded from pursuing what is in reality a very promising career choice. But they shouldn't have been, and here's why:

  • IT has become vital to business profitability. At Harrah's Entertainment, for example, projects that are part of an ongoing operational CRM initiative are producing a higher internal rate of return than would adding buildings and infrastructure, and the CRM projects are generating revenue increases of 10% to 50%. Those initiatives depend on IT, including data warehouse and business intelligence technologies.
  • The fast pace of technological change keeps IT careers interesting. As the costs of processing power, storage and connectivity continue to drop, more and more business processes are being auto-mated. IT is and will continue to be a growing part of business.
  • The threat of offshoring is overstated. Globalization is indeed redistributing some IT jobs. Many positions -- especially those that can be virtualized -- are migrating to low-wage locations. But many aren't going anywhere. Ultimately, all business is local. Cultural, proximity and time-zone limitations do matter because they can affect customer service, customer trust and customer loyalty. Perhaps that's why Dell is expanding its call center in Oklahoma instead of New Delhi. Meanwhile, broadband and voice over IP are giving more U.S. workers the agility to compete by working from home in virtual call centers.
  • The globalization of IT is an opportunity. Global businesses are moving some highly skilled IT jobs into overseas offices, placing key human resources closer to customers in each market. Some view this as an exodus of skilled jobs from the U.S. But the idea that all highly skilled IT jobs in a global company should remain centralized here is as ridiculous as assuming that all of those jobs will go to India. The good news is that the next generation of IT professionals will find a global job market with opportunities to live and work in many different countries.
  • Demand for IT workers in the U.S. will remain strong. The H-1B visas that enable foreign workers to take high-tech jobs are often viewed as a threat to U.S. workers, rather than the stopgap measure they are. Former Intel CEO Craig Barrett has stated that wage differentials aren't the issue and that Intel would hire more U.S. engineers if it could find them.

Educated and talented IT professionals are in demand no matter where they're from. That sentiment was backed up by IT leaders at the Premier 100 conference, where 70% said that they hire the most qualified workers, regardless of citizenship.

The future for IT is brighter and the playing field more level than the public is led to believe.

Robert L. Mitchell is a Computerworld national correspondent. Contact him at robert_mitchell@computerworld.com.



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