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Is There an IT Skills Shortage in the U.S.? Well, Yes and No

Don Tennant

There's probably no more hotly contested or controversial issue in IT than the question of whether there's an IT skills shortage in the U.S. One side claims adamantly that while we have plenty of IT workers, there's a definite shortage of the particular skills that companies increasingly need. The other side fires back that it's ludicrous to suggest that a skills shortage exists when so many IT professionals are unemployed or underemployed. So the answer to the question depends entirely on whom you ask.

 

I posed the question to a couple of IT executives who will attend the IT Business Edge Midmarket CIO Forum in Orlando In March, and both responded that they basically see no skills shortage. In both cases, it was a qualified "no."

 

I spoke with Tina Serio, manager of information and sales technologies at Spartan Chemical Co., a cleaning products manufacturer in Ohio, and she said that for the most part, she can find the skills she needs locally:

We have network services that we use locally. We outsourced the rewrite of a software program that we offer to our customers last year, and all of those skills were local. So I don't see, at least in our market, a big shortage.

But again, there were qualifiers. The first one came when Serio recalled her experience last year when she was interviewing recent college graduates for a summer intern position:

None of them had the skills that I expected. I mean, these are people coming right out of college with information systems degrees, and they had no programming skills-none. ... It's almost like they go get a four-year degree, and then you train them to do what you need done.

The second qualifier stemmed from Spartan's ERP rollout three years ago. The ERP vendor was CDC Software, a unit of CDC Corp. in Hong Kong, and the CDC consultants were hardly locals. According to Serio:

Most of their consultants were international, and we had to use them because we needed people who were experts in the system. [The consultants were] from Yugoslavia, Germany, Poland, Canada. I mean, we went with a global company for the ERP system, so it makes sense.

I wondered aloud whether that reflected a lack of sufficient ERP skills in the U.S., and Serio made it clear that the rigors of an ERP implementation leave little time to ponder such questions:

I don't know if they come cheaper, or that just because CDC is a global company that's where their most experienced people came from. I didn't ask them that question. Believe me, during an ERP rollout that's the last thing I was thinking about.

Meanwhile, in my "Note to Feds: Outsourcing Hang-Ups Are So Three Years Ago" post last week, I wrote about a discussion I had with David D'Agostino, IT director at Advanced Technology Systems Corp., regarding the reluctance of government contractors to take advantage of cost savings made possible by outsourcing. I also asked D'Agostino for his thoughts on the skills shortage question. His response was a "no" to a skills shortage, qualified by a "yes" to a shortage of people with multiple skills:

I'm not sure there's a skills shortage, per se. In my position, running a relatively small department, and having a fairly sophisticated infrastructure-a Cisco phone system, EMC, VMware for all our machines-I think there's a shortage of combined skills. I've got one guy, my network manager, who has certifications in VMware and EMC storage; he knows enough about Cisco to get everything done that we need to get done. If he left, it would be hard for me to find somebody like that-it would be hard to replace him.

If there's a moral to the story, it's that the question of whether there's an IT skills shortage in the U.S. simply can't accurately be answered with a simple "yes" or "no." There are so many variables and ill-defined yardsticks that a definitive answer will always elude us. The best answer we'll ever get is, at least, accurate: "It depends."


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