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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Add Comment      Leave a comment on this blog post
Jan 26, 2010 8:03 PM Martino P Martino P  says:

When you use the phrase "labor shortage" or "skills shortage" you're speaking in a sentence fragment.  What you actually mean to say is:  "There is a labor shortage at the salary level I'm willing to pay."  That statement is the correct phrase; the complete sentence and the intellectually honest statement.

Some people speak about shortages as though they represent some absolute, readily identifiable lack of desirable services. Price is rarely accorded its proper importance in their discussion.

If you start raising wages and improving working conditions, and continue doing so, you'll solve your shortage and will have people lining up around the block to work for you even if you need to have huge piles of steaming manure hand-scooped on a blazing summer afternoon. 

And if you think there's going to be a shortage caused by employees retiring out of the workforce:  Guess again:  With the majority of retirement accounts down about 50% or more, most people entering retirement age are working well into their sunset years.  So, you won't be getting a worker shortage anytime soon due to retirees exiting the workforce. 

Some specialized jobs require training and/or certification, again, the solution is higher wages and improved benefits. People will self-fund their re-education so that they can enter the industry in a work-ready state.  The attractive wages, working conditions and career prospects of technology during the 1980's and 1990's was a prime example of people's willingness to self-fund their own career re-education.

There is never enough of any good or service to satisfy all wants or desires. A buyer, or employer, must give up something to get something. They must pay the market price and forego whatever else he could have for the same price. The forces of supply and demand determine these prices -- and the price of a skilled workman is no exception. The buyer can take it or leave it. However, those who choose to leave it (because of lack of funds or personal preference) must not cry shortage. The good is available at the market price. All goods and services are scarce, but scarcity and shortages are by no means synonymous. Scarcity is a regrettable and unavoidable fact.

Shortages are purely a function of price. The only way in which a shortage has existed, or ever will exist, is in cases where the "going price" has been held below the market-clearing price.

Feb 2, 2010 10:01 AM R. Lawspm R. Lawspm  says:

"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. ... "

IS degrees aren't heavy in programming.  They are focused on administration and management of enterprise systems, and higher level activities.  If they want students with a better foundation in development, look at CS departments.

However, the business of IT is what business asked universities to focus on.  They are getting exactly what they asked for, so I find it interesting that they are now complaining.  They begged for the softer skills because there were many developers unable to communicate with the business.

As far as development skills, as a senior level developer I think it is unreasonable to expect someone to be even close to proficient out of college with no experience.  Yes, companies should be training them.  People who don't understand this don't understand software development themselves.

Companies have become use to not investing in the training.  Train your people or your business will suffer.  It is that simple.

Mar 18, 2010 3:00 PM Big Talk Big Talk  says: in response to R. Lawspm

The Night of the Living Dead

The reason why the is unemployment in the IT sector is the same reason that so many IT project fail.

Recriuters invent job descriptions requiring combinations of skills that simply do not exsist.

These combinations are caused simpy by mashing together several postitions into one, as desired by skin-flinted CFOs (zombies).

This requirement for "multitasking" causes the shortage of postions.

Just have a hard look at IT job descriptions on recruitment boards. They are fantasies, fabrications and the merest tissues of lies.

As a result,  these misrepresented positions generally go a few people who are willing misrepresent themselves.

In the end, the required skills are absent and projects fail. Succesful IT projects are so lucrative however, that this approach eeks by, because it seems to support the bottom line required by zombies.

How can any project be successful under these conditions? A SEI CMM analysis would indicate a reliance on "Heroes".

These are usually young and artificially stimulated individuals who, for brief intervals, can actually perform the multitasking required.

This usually results in traumatic burn out and dismissal, but this is external to the bottom line. The zombies have had their fill of fresh brain, and move on the next project and potential victims.


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