The skills shortage that isn't

Computer industry magnates are panicked over what they call a "shortage" of computer-savvy workers, but some say the only shortage is of longterm prospects in the field.

6 min read
The promises that the layoffs of the late '80s and early '90s would bear the fruit of plentiful, high-paying, high-tech jobs are starting to be fulfilled, and industry titans are declaring it a "crisis."

In forums, white papers, and speeches, computer industry magnates are issuing dire warnings of a shortage of computer-savvy workers. But to many computer workers, the tightening job market is joyous news. Since the last Cassandra-like warning of an engineering shortage in the mid-80s, the market has been glutted with computer programmers, both degreed and self-taught. Now that companies are finding the tables turned on them, they are whining that there just aren't enough employees to go around.

The only apparent shortage is one of companies willing to hire and retain a long-term workforce by offering reasonable work hours, advancement, retraining, and a modicum of job security, especially to older workers.

Last month, the Information Technology Association of America (ITAA) released a report that said one in ten computer openings nowadays languishes unfilled because of the so-called shortage, which amounts to a total of 346,000 open "information technology" (IT) positions. That estimate was nearly double what the trade association projected just a few months earlier.

Declaring the situation a national emergency, the group has called on the federal government to invest millions of dollars to attract kids to computer science degrees to fill those positions. The ITAA is also asking the federal government to raise the limit of foreign nationals its 11,000 member companies may hire under a special, temporary visa called the H-1B.

The industry has made it clear. It's not interested in retraining the current workforce, which is likely adequate for its needs. No, it wants fresh bodies, preferably young or beholden ones willing to accept entry-level wages for long hours and who are either burdened with few family obligations or willing to pass them over.

While there is stiff competition for some workers with very narrow or rare skills, there are plenty of educated and experienced U.S. computer employees to go around, says professor Norman Matloff, who teaches computer science at the University of California at Davis. While industry spin doctors pump out a dizzying array of dire-sounding numbers, Matloff quietly and persuasively insists that the industry doth protest too much.

Microsoft extends offers to only 4 percent of those selected for interviews, and hires only 2 percent of its total applicants, Matloff points out. Microsoft says its rejection rate is so high because it hires only the best and brightest. Matloff counters that out of 50 MIT graduates recently considered, the company took one.

If Microsoft and other employers were really desperate, they couldn't afford to be so picky, he says. Instead, companies insist programmers have experience in relatively new languages or they won't consider them at all. The only shortage, Matloff says, is of young, cheap programmers straight out of school, well-versed in the flavor-of-the-day programming language or information system.

"I could just as easily say there's a shortage of brand-new Ferraris for sale for $10,000," Matloff says. "I desperately want to buy one for $10,000. I've been looking everywhere."

While the ITAA convocation set up a forum to encourage minorities and women to get college degrees and join the pool of newly minted graduates, there was very little talk of retraining or rehiring mid-career workers at the event. Matloff's own research found that, for the most part, companies are unwilling to retrain experienced programmers to fill available slots. A programmer proficient in one language should be able to pick up another in as little as a week, the professor says. Older programmers who pay to retrain themselves are often rejected anyway.

Programming is a young profession. Six years after finishing a computer science degree, only 57 percent of computer science graduates are working as programmers. After 15 years, only 34 percent remain. At 20 years, a mere 19 percent are still working as programmers. Nobody knows for certain why the turnover rate is so high, but here's one clue: Programmers over the age of 50 suffer an astounding 17 percent rate of unemployment, according to one estimate. Even in the supposedly dire shortage of Cobol programmers to tackle the Year 2000 problem, older workers, especially women, are finding their skills to be a hard sell, a recent Computerworld column reported. And many of the 20,000 engineers laid off in the early 1990s because of military contractor downsizing and base closings still haven't found work in technical fields.

Still, the ITAA says we're producing fewer computer science graduates every year and it predicts that if we don't crank out more, the economic future of the United States is toast. No doubt, we'll need more programmers, but we may yet produce them. The law of supply and demand is still in working order, it's just not working fast enough for the ITAA.

Although the number of computer science graduates steadily declined between 1990 and 1995, there was a good reason: the industry was experiencing a glut. As late as 1987, 60,000 graduates were competing for about 25,000 open positions, according to Janet Ruhl, author of The Programmers Survival Guide. But as the demand has increased, so has the supply, Matloff says. For the academic year 1996-97, computer science enrollments were up 40 percent from the previous year. Meanwhile, while the supply is tight, ITAA businesses will just have to pay more and offer workers more concessions.

Likewise, Matloff argues that the industry's cry for more immigrants isn't because there are no workers to do the job, just few cheap, malleable, and, ultimately, disposable workers. For example, between 1990 and 1997, Digital Equipment Corporation cut more than 20,000 U.S. jobs. During that same period, it applied for 1,100 H-1B visas, according to the Software Professionals Political Action Committee (Softpac), a lobbying group formed to oppose increases in temporary immigrant visas.

Furthermore, a 1994 UCLA study found that immigrant engineers were paid about one-third less than native-born counterparts with equivalent skills and experience. And Matloff's own salary survey from the 1990 U.S. census data found that immigrant Silicon Valley software engineers earned an average of $7,000 less than prevailing wages for U.S. citizens.

Even the U.S. Inspector General concluded in a 1996 report that abuse of temporary worker visas was rampant. The study found that employers routinely skirted the required proof that no U.S. worker of equivalent skills or experience could be found. Also, immigrants were often illegally subcontracted and underpaid. Still, the ITAA is pressing for an expansion of the program as an emergency measure. Ironically, it was another projected engineering shortage that prompted the emergency expansion of the program to its current status. That was in the mid 1980s, just before the bottom dropped out of the engineering market.

Where were the hand-wringing high-tech business associations then? Where were the blue-ribbon panels, the university studies, the millions of dollars to employ high-tech refugees of the military-industrial complex squeezed out of good-paying mid-career positions? When the law of supply and demand is working in the industry's favor, we're told to relax, it's the virtuous free market at work. When it works against them, it's a travesty that demands immediate governmental intervention.

So is there a "skills crisis"? It's impossible to prove one way or the other. For every number on one side, there's a counter on the other, and all of them are flawed. Computer programmers, systems managers, and other information technology professionals often have unrelated college degrees or no degrees at all, making their careers impossible to follow, their numbers extremely difficult to count. There's no harm in encouraging the best students to major in computer science-related fields and to join the ranks of IT professionals after graduation. But one may ask why they would want to when their long-term prospects appear so bleak?

Why shed a tear for these highly paid superstars? Because you're next. For years we put up with layoffs and firings in the name of globalization and the creation of the "new economy." A rising tide was supposed to float all boats. In the face of soaring corporate profits, we were admonished to wait.

Now that the tide is finally rising for the workers that made these record profits possible, corporations are doing their best to ebb it by encouraging a glut of new college graduates and imported foreign nationals. The so-called new economy has survived on a surfeit of disposable workers. As the market tightens, it is facing the expense of hiring, retaining, and retraining workers for long-term employment. It's the worst nightmare the captains of the "new economy" have ever faced. But there may finally be some good news out of this booming economy for the rest of us.