Wanted: Gaggles of geeks

IT professionals find themselves wooed, enticed, and lured across the country. Their ilk is in short supply.

4 min read
In Austin, Texas, software companies have bloomed like desert flowers after a rain in the last few years, leaving hundreds of firms with some 2,000 high-tech jobs they can't fill.

Estimating that the number of openings for IT professionals in their area will grow fivefold by the end of the year, Austin software makers last weekend rented hotel space on Route 128, Massachusetts' high-tech hub, and invited programmers to hear more about the city's warm climate, lower cost of living, and legendary Texan charm.

What better time than the dead of a New England winter to hold the Boston-to-Austin Job Fair and woo Massachusetts programmers with the promise of year-round water skiing?

The problem is, Massachusetts software companies--like their counterparts nationwide--are faced with similar shortages of skilled software programmers, engineers, architects, and sales and marketing professionals.

Unemployment among midlevel, experienced IT professionals is virtually nonexistent. Meanwhile, the U.S. Commerce Department estimates general unemployment at three to four percent.

"I can't think of a market right now that isn't facing a shortage," said Larry Standzack, a manager with executive search and market research firm Source Services. Standzack said demand for IT labor has been booming since 1993 and continues to accelerate.

What is emerging as a serious problem can be blamed on the explosive growth of the U.S. software industry. That growth, in turn, is linked to a strong economy and the encroachment of computer technologies beyond corporate America's back office into consumer goods and other areas.

Falling prices for computer chips have fueled their use in a growing array of consumer products and have created a huge demand for programmers who can write software, experts said.

That's good news for software makers' balance sheets, and it has helped to buoy the U.S. economy as a whole. Technology stocks have done well on the stock markets, inspiring venture capitalists to new levels, while the IT industry has come to represent 3.1 percent of the country's GDP, according to International Data Corporation. That figure could grow to as much as ten percent by early next century.

Yet growth that has absorbed the country's programming talent--not to mention tens of thousands of foreign-born IT professionals--is beginning to alarm experts. They say the labor shortage could undermine the U.S. industry in the global marketplace--or worse.

"It's not just a shortage of desktop software developers that we are talking about," said Shirley Tessler, an industry analyst at Stanford University's William F. Miller Graduate School of Business. "From airline systems to medical devices, our lives depend on systems that require complex software."

Growing demand for programmers to maintain and update the nation's high-tech systems in nearly every economic sector is creating an increasingly expensive competition on nearly every popular programming language and platform.

Experienced sales and marketing executives are also in demand and in short supply, experts said.

Software publishers usually win the best of the talent pool, with big-money offers, benefits, bonuses, and the allure of working with other top programmers, Tessler said. Even so, the industry's heavy-hitters are also feeling the crunch for cutting-edge programmers, whom Tessler likens to artists.

"These individuals are really born, not made," said Tessler, which explains why many companies guard their talent as if they were gold, sometimes even suing competitors that lure away top programmers. For example, database software maker Informix Software is currently embroiled in a lawsuit against arch rival Oracle, alleging that Oracle stole an entire team of software developers last month.

Needless to say, it's become a seller's market, where top programming talent can demand astronomical salaries. And issues like quality of life and corporate culture are playing an increasingly large role in programmers' decisions, experts said.

Local business groups are spending more time pitching the merits of their areas in an attempt to snag qualified help.

Massachusetts, California's Silicon Valley, and Manhattan's Silicon Alley have had the most success in luring programmers from other states and foreign countries by touting large communities of top-notch programmers and thriving cultural scenes and nightlife.

That leaves cities like Columbus, Ohio, at a disadvantage. While CompuServe and Lucent Technology, among others, run large operations in the metropolitan Columbus area, attracting top talent is a challenge, according to Sarah Arnett, a manager at the Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce, who has worked on an initiative to recruit software professionals.

She said the chamber has opted to highlight the quality of life in Columbus, touting things like short commutes, little traffic, and friendly people. Still, "we hear a lot about how we are not located near the ocean or the mountains, and we only have so many sunny days a year," Arnett added.

As the industry continues to feel the crunch, experts said now is the time to step up efforts to shepherd more children into high-tech careers, retrain adults who have been laid off in other fields, and keep immigration channels open.