In my "Lawson CEO Explains Why We Need the H-1B" post yesterday, I mentioned that the CEO, Harry Debes, referred to labor as "somewhat of a commodity." Suggesting that IT workers are nothing more than a commodity is outrageous, and I fully expected readers to express their outrage. But at this writing, not a single reader who has posted a comment has mentioned it.
People are not a commodity. Orange juice and grain and oil are commodities. Every barrel of oil is like every other barrel. People are the exact opposite. No two people are alike. And more to the point at hand, no two IT workers have exactly the same experience, work ethic or IT skill set.
That point seems to have been lost, not only within the IT profession as a whole, but even among readers of this blog who adamantly defend U.S. IT workers and who passionately advocate on behalf of those workers' best interests. There was earnest disagreement expressed in response to yesterday's post, but it mainly had to with Debes' viewpoint that there continues to be an IT skills shortage in the U.S.
The reader response to that viewpoint was fascinating. "Can you find a single empirical study that shows a worker shortage in IT?" one reader asked. "Every last one I know of that has been produced has found there is no such worker shortage." Added another reader: "I find it absurd that anyone is using the words IT labor shortage' in the year 2010."
The problem is that we tend to think of "worker shortage in IT" and "IT labor shortage" as being synonymous with "IT skills shortage." They are not synonymous. The phrase "IT labor shortage" was not used in this blog post. What was being discussed was the question of whether there's an IT skills shortage, which is an entirely different matter.
The CEOs and CIOs I speak with almost never suggest that there is an IT labor shortage. They say that if there's a shortage, it's in the particular skills they're looking for. The legitimacy of that assessment is extremely difficult to prove or disclaim. IT skills requirements are so fluid that it would be nearly impossible to come up with an empirical study to answer the skills shortage question. Any such study would only be a snapshot in time, and would be of little true value.
Responding to the question of whether there's an IT skills shortage with an argument that studies show there is no shortage of IT workers lends credence to the outrageous contention that IT workers are a commodity. By substituting "worker shortage" or "labor shortage" for "skills shortage," we're suggesting that one IT worker is just like the next, like two grains of rice. Until that distinction is consistently made and appreciated, the commoditization of people will continue to advance.