Opinion: A lack of IT workers spurs reader response

Readers have a love/hate relationship with IT

Q: Hi Steve, I'm very surprised that this article [see "Opinion: A scarcity of IT talent will force piracy"] focused on schools and academia for not "keeping the gig fresh" as the reason given for students shunning information technology as a career. Students I've spoken with reference IT jobs going overseas (they readily mention India and China) and don't see a future in this field for Americans. So, you tell me where the disconnect is. -- T.D., Westminster, Colo.

A: My friend T.D. is referring to last week's article, where I was trying to talk about just what the heck are we going to do about the fact that there are more IT job openings than IT grads looking to fill them. Suffice it to say, this is the most popular (although clearly not the most entertaining) article I've ever written, assuming you consider the 8 billion e-mails I got a reasonable metric. Sorry for those I haven't responded too yet. I should catch up by June.

I appear to have stumbled onto a big one, so I'll probably milk it for a bit. For this article, I'm not going to write diddly. I'm going to print a mere sample of some of the e-mails I got from you. (These were all received within about three minutes of one another). I've tried to include only a representative sample that seems to have something to do with the issue at hand. I did receive many from some folks who clearly hadn't taken some of their pills yet, and to you all, I say, "sha doobie."

A love/hate relationship with IT

"I'm an older worker, originally a physicist, who has been working in programming and IT for many years. Currently, I am unemployed. I was drawn into computers over 25 years ago when they were so new to most people that I could set the rules. My rules were: I am interested in the technology itself, and as long as the employer feeds that interest, I can handle operations tasks as well. I got hired by a large technology company and figured I would transition into R&D unrelated to computers. It turned out that company only wanted me as [an] IT worker. Early on, I ran into security problems with my employer's external data communications. For a while, I was in control of solution selection. Soon, I saw that my employer was willing to sacrifice sound security engineering for convenience. Software vendors such as Microsoft produced despicable garbage. Every year, I expected lawmakers to make software vendors legally responsible for the security exposures caused by their products. I expected my employer to refuse buying garbage software and engineer its own superior products. Today, I despise IT so much that I find it hard to think about working in the field. Ironically, Microsoft got a lot better with time, but the culture of building commerce on a poor technical foundation is worse than ever." -- E.B.

Don't trust anyone over 30

"At the peak of the dot-com boom, U.S. businesses complained that they could find absolutely no American workers. By 'workers,' they meant IT professionals under 30 years old. I asked a good friend for a job. He said he could not hire anyone over 30. He said his customers for IT services were all under 30, and no one over 30 could possibly understand or relate to his intended audience.

"So they allowed businesses to hire, on H-1B visas, lots of IT professionals who satisfied the main requirement: under 30.

"There are plenty of IT professionals over 30 who are unemployable. Not to mention IT professionals over 50. But no one will hire them. So now they say piracy will result if they can't hire foreigners who are IT professionals under 30." -- M.W.

Work in IT? Not until companies respect it again

"I think at least as big a problem is that, in the eyes of the younger generation, there's no 'there' there any more. Were I an 18- or 19-year-old today faced with choosing an occupation (not to mention a career path), and all I'd seen and heard in the past 10 years is downsizing, outsourcing and shrinking spending, why the heck would I go into IT?

"Even if I do get a job, in a few years (just when my earning power starts to get significant), I can count on being laid off or my job being shipped overseas to someone making one-quarter as much, or being replaced by a foreigner on a visa here at half my pay as part of a 'cost-cutting measure.

"Kids aren't stupid; they can see IT is a very tenuous choice these days. I don't think I'd recommend it for my own 14-year-old geeky kid -- programming, maybe, which I think gets more respect from companies and has been a little less turbulent in terms of job security. But IT? Not until companies start treating it with respect again.

"And maybe a massive talent shortage will cause companies to change for the better, but from my viewpoint, companies are reaping what they have sewn over phe last 10 years." -- C.W.

Companies just want "cheap" IT people

"Dear Mr. Duplessie, Your article is very annoying to me. (I predict that your e-mail in-box is filled with lots of e-mail similar to this one.) I am 53 years old. I am not yet ready to retire. I know mainframes. I know Fortran, PL/I, Cobol (various), assembler -- BAL, RPG, Focus, Easytrieve, COOL:Gen, SAS, etc. ...

"I have not worked in mainframes for quite a long time, and not by my own choice.

"I also know C and Unix. I mention this to show that I have not been sitting on my hands. I most recently worked using SAS in a clinical trial and am currently a full-time student at Boston University School of Public Health.

"Companies don't simply want people who know mainframes. They want, and have always wanted, cheap people who know mainframes. They get that now with H-1B workers who are stuck with a sponsoring company and can't move freely between companies. They'll get that in future with young workers who learn mainframes and can't yet demand higher wages. They don't want older workers who already know the stuff but won't accept unreasonably low wages.

"A free market will fill any need. There is no shortage of mainframe experience. There is only a shortage of cheap mainframe experience." -- L.S.

What's the incentive?

Why don't you try this theory? With offshore rate 20 to 30 cents on the dollar for IT developers, support staffers and database administrators, there is no longer any financial incentive to pursue IT as a life work. Regardless of how good American talent is, the vision of one person producing the equivalent output of three to five offshore workers is a pipe dream." -- R.M.

Stop blaming the kids

"Kids today are not avoiding technical careers because they are boring or too tactical. There are plenty of smart young people in this country who could be engineering or computer science majors. The reason they are not going in that direction is because all they hear from parents, friends, neighbors or the media is how the technical jobs are being outsourced offshore. Why would these kids want to go through fours years of college, in very difficult majors, only to find that there are no jobs for them in this country? Parents push their kids to look for majors/careers that can't be outsourced, like teaching, marketing, medical or legal. Stop blaming the kids and start blaming the companies that have shipped all their production and support offshore. If you want more kids to pursue technical careers, then make sure that there will be U.S. jobs when they graduate." -- J.R.

IT cheapskates

"Here I am with 36 years of experience in IT (including 22 years [in] worldwide support for the former Amdahl Corp.) and no job. Crisis is created by cheapskate companies that won't hire experience! Why not look at it from our end for a change instead of the whining management end? Therein lies the challenge!" -- R.M.

Speak for yourself

"I've made more money in the past 20 as a sysadmin than I would ever have made as a physicist, so for me, this was an excellent career move." -- R.Z.

Boarding over glamorous glass houses

"I had my teeth cleaned this morning. To pass the time, the hygienist asked about my career. I mentioned that I took my first programming course in 1969. She said she didn't know computers existed back then.

"Most kids have never seen the infrastructure. Many people would not recognize a modern mainframe or know or care about how it differs from a rack of servers. Any computer facility of significant value was locked up and hidden away decades ago. A necessary precaution in the light of terrorists and well-armed disgruntled employees. The original glass houses were built because companies proudly displayed their mainframes. Now I don't answer industry surveys on the types of hardware and software we use -- for security reasons. Boarding over the computer-room glass was necessary, but it is lousy PR." -- D.S.

Enrollment's down, but jobs are up

"Mr. Duplessie, it was with great interest that I read your editorial on IT grads and why IT isn't sexy anymore. I sure could use your advice. I started with the magical boxes on a CDC 6500 at Michigan State in the early '70's, (yeah, I am an old fart). Now I am the Unix guy at our local community college, North Lake in Irving, Texas. We sit on the west side of Dallas, and Dallas was hammered in the combined dot-com implosion and the telecom collapse. Here is my problem. I have an outstanding Unix program at the college, but between my night and day classes, I have only 14 students taking Unix I this semester. I have seven in shell scripting, and I didn't even bother to offer Unix II. Systems administration only had four students sign up, so the administration canceled the class. I know that Unix/Linux is the coming thing and that as we old guys retire, there will be a bigger and bigger need for Unix folk. (As far as I am concerned, Linux is Unix.)

"Anyway, how do I let students know that there are now jobs again? How do I tell them that they need to know Unix and that it is a ticket to a good job? I agree with your assessment of the need, and from slightly more personal experience, my son, who is 21, started [working] at Texas Instruments six months ago as a Unix/Solaris support guy (mostly desktop support), was bored and [now] will start [working] with a major investment firm next week as a Unix admin and programmer. He only has his associates degree in Unix sysadmin, and at his new job, they offered him $69k. (That's more than I make as a full-time professor with a Ph.D.!) For him, it is great, but how do I let the rest of those kids out there know what is happening in IT? They look back a couple of years when we had 10-year experienced folks taking junior jobs because that is all there was available." -- D.G.

I should have stayed in welding

"If IT shops are so desperate for experienced IT personnel, why can't I even get an interview these days? In my area, a typical classified ad for an IT job would want you to be certified in many areas, experienced with a wide variety of disciplines, which would suggest no less that five to seven years' experience, but only offer $12 an hour? Please ... I should have stayed a pipefitter/welder. Much more money and satisfaction than IT is anymore." -- J.J.

Seeing smoke on the horizon

"Well, that sort of frames the issue, now doesn't it? It seems we have an old-fashioned failure to communicate, my friends. On one hand, 'active observers like me (I like that better than 'useless dope with a keyboard') see the inevitable results and the impact those results will have on business. And on the other hand, the idiots running companies still believe IT is totally nonstrategic. If they don't value talent, and bitch that they can't get it because they refuse to pay for it, then this isn't a very hard problem to understand at all.

"If you view IT holistically as a job shop, you will treat it as such. You will outsource until no one is left. Then you will say, 'See how much costs I cut?' In a really bad company, you will be promoted.

"IT is not like making a bumper. It's not a 'piece' of the product, and that is the disconnect. Sure, lots of IT 'parts' should be outsourced to the cheapest provider -- they are not strategic. They are entirely tactical, and we tend to stink at them. I can't believe we still do our own backup. I'm fascinated at the 'in-sourcing' phenomenon of disaster recovery, because wow, those guys must have totally screwed up! We have yet to solve any of the real problems of IT, and as such, we have yet to provide any of the real possible enhancements to the business that we should, and will. I have no issue at all with outsourcing costs. I have huge issues with outsourcing strategic thinkers and doers.

"If there is anyone alive that thinks you can hire a $15-per-hour person to design the next service-oriented architecture that will not only work but will actually create business value, I have a bridge I'd like to show you.

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