The State of the IT Training Union

Michael Vizard
Slide Show

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Five IT skills getting attention from recruiters.

We all know that talk is cheap, especially when that conversation is taking place in Washington. But if there is one message in the State of the Union speech President Barack Obama delivered last night, it is that the way the United States goes about creating a competitive work force is fundamentally broken.

This, of course, has been a major issue facing IT professionals for years largely because there has always been a gap between when new technologies first get adopted and when there are enough people who have the skills needed to manage them. There are no better examples of that than virtualization and Linux, both of which need more trained IT professionals to implement them.

In prosperous times, this issue doesn't get much attention because it generally leads to higher salaries for IT professionals who keep their skills current. But in tough times, this issue leads to abuses of visa programs and a rise in outsourcing lower-level IT jobs. Unfortunately, a lot of the IT people who get displaced in that process don't have the advanced skills needed to get a job elsewhere. One can argue over whose responsibility it is to maintain skills, but the fact remains that IT jobs not being filled is not in the best interest of the country. The good news is that it looks like some of the people in Washington are starting to understand the correlation between skills and jobs. The most IT-relevant passages from Obama's speech last night included:

Growing industries in science and technology have twice as many openings as we have workers who can do the job. Think about that - openings at a time when millions of Americans are looking for work.
That's inexcusable. And we know how to fix it.

The president's approach to fixing the problem is to create a more structured approach to training that envisions tighter partnerships between industries and community colleges that are often the best source for job training. The government has long been a source of funding for those programs, but actually finding the appropriate government program to fund training, despite the efforts of organizations such as CompTIA, has been difficult. The president last night pledged to fix that problem.

I want to cut through the maze of confusing training programs, so that from now on, people like Jackie have one program, one website, and one place to go for all the information and help they need. It's time to turn our unemployment system into a re-employment system that puts people to work.

To make the promise a reality, the president seems intent on fixing the tax code, which today has little influence over whether a company opts to keep a job in the U.S. or move it overseas. That long-overdue change is going to naturally be the subject of an intense political battle between Republican and Democrats, but the president's position is:

If you're a business that wants to outsource jobs, you shouldn't get a tax deduction for doing it.

Of course, defining what is an "American job" in a global economy is not so easy, and many companies will rightly argue that those tax breaks are needed to compete effectively on a global basis, especially in closed markets. The president last night promised to do something about that as well by setting up a new Trade Enforcement Unit to more aggressively investigate unfair trade practices. But it's unlikely that effort will have any direct impact on IT jobs.

If there is one bright spot, global outsourcers are beginning to recognize the winds of IT change, which is why some of them are starting to hire more aggressively in the U.S. But none of this is going to happen overnight. In fact, given the gridlock in Washington, none of it may happen at all. The good news, however, is that politicians at least are starting to acknowledge what the real economic issues are as it relates to IT. That may represent cold comfort to some, but at least there's something that looks like the beginning of progress in terms of framing the real issues.

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