Labor Conflict in the Land of IT

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As we approach Labor Day, it seems appropriate to take a look at the state of labor relations between IT and the rest of the business.

Clearly, the issue that gets most of the attention these days is the uproar over H-B1 visa program. While much of this discussion is wrapped up in xenophobia, the root cause of all the outrage really goes to the heart of who is responsible for IT training. Older workers are outraged when companies hire younger workers from overseas at a lower cost. Business executives justify such action because they need people with new IT skills who are not readily available in the existing talent pool. What business executives are really saying is they don't see it as their responsibility to keep the IT staff's skills current. Instead, they are saying that IT workers participate in a free market system where it is their responsibility to invest in keeping their IT skills current so they can compete more effectively with workers from around the globe. This issue is hardly limited to people seeking visas to enter this country, because now it's relatively simple to hire someone for just about any IT position anywhere in the globe.

The real issue is what is to what degree is the U.S. willing to invest to make sure its citizens are competitive in a global IT marketplace. A business is under no legal or moral imperative to train its workers. It may make good business sense to do so. But if the U.S. wants to keep high-salary IT jobs here as part of national economic policy, then it has any number of tax incentive options available to provide businesses with right kind of incentives to train U.S. citizens. It can also try to mitigate how many people compete for those jobs by limiting visas, but the economic impact might only be to push more jobs overseas and in so doing lower the tax base. Unfortunately, in an economy where hundreds of thousands of people are already out of work, the plight of comparatively high-skilled and well-paid IT people is hard to get on the current Washington agenda.

While the visa issue dominates the IT labor discussion, there are other issues that the business needs to deal with. Specifically, the relationship between IT people and the folks that work in facilities needs to improve. It's been getting better thanks to Green IT initiatives, but the business needs to make sure that IT people get the proper amount of credit for these efforts. The facilities people obviously benefit from the lower amount of power being consumed, but it's the IT people that assume all the risk in terms of putting in new systems that consume less power. If anything goes wrong, they take the blame. And all too often, they don't get any of the budgetary credit for saving costs on power.

This is only the beginning of the convergence of IT and the facilities department. Physical and IT security is starting to come together so, for instance, if we know an employee is in the building, chances are that's not them trying to remotely access a server from outside the building.

We're also going to need a lot more cooperation between these two departments as the national effort to create a Smart Grid goes online. Each company location is likely to have a power controller developed by companies such as Teletrol Systems , a unit of Philips, that will need to be integrated across network bandwidth usually managed by the IT department.

All in all, this means that one of the biggest priorities for the coming year should be to get two departments that have been historically at odds with each other to work better together.


Finally, the other big issue of the day that nobody really wants to talk about is IT automation. The simple fact is that as IT becomes more automated, a lot of existing IT jobs as we know them are going to disappear. The potential impact of this trend could easily dwarf any existing IT labor issues.


There will always be a lot of labor conflict surrounding IT. The very reason we have IT is to drive change, and with change come conflict. Today that conflict takes place on a global scale. Those changes are never going to stop coming, so what then needs to change is how we handle it.