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How to Tackle the IT Worker Shortage

One of the surest ways to solve the shortage of information technology (IT) workers is for companies to partner with local schools and colleges

July 1, 1998
Ironic, but true. The United States—world leader in technology—is seriously short of information technology (IT) professionals. And the causes of the problem are no mystery.

A proliferation of information technology, and the "Year 2000 problem," has caused a rapidly growing demand for IT personnel. Says Ed Toben, vice president of global information technology for New York City-based Colgate-Palmolive Company, "Businesses must address this as a fact of life, and not as a short-term issue. Supply and demand is out of line, and I doubt it will ever get back into line."

Other technology experts in the industry concur. Consider the following statistics and comments:

  • The Information Technology Association of America’s (ITAA) January survey indicates a current shortage of 346,000 IT specialists, and the probability that the shortfall will rise to a frightful deficit of 1.6 million IT workers by the year 2005. "The shortage is across the board," says Harris Miller, president of the Arlington, Virginia-based trade association. "On top of that, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that 1.3 million new IT opportunities will be created over the next 10 years."
  • Another recent survey, conducted by Manufacturer’s Alliance, a policy research organization also based in Arlington, confirms those findings. "Only 10 percent of medium and large manufacturers responding to our survey indicated they weren’t having trouble finding computer-related expertise," says Patricia Buckley, an economist and staff director to the Human Resources Coun-cil—a national roundtable of HR vice presidents created by the alliance. "And the problem appears to be widespread in all regions."
  • Business demand for information systems is growing at 30 percent per year, according to Howard Rubin, META Group research fellow, and computer science department chairman at Hunter College in New York. (META Group is an international research and consulting organization, headquartered in Stamford, Connecticut. "To make matters worse, there were only 25,000 to 30,000 IT graduates nationwide this year, compared to 45,000 last year," says Rubin.

Such alarming statistics have companies in a frenzy. Without information systems analysts, programmers, software engineers and other technical support representatives, companies will not be able to function in a timely, organized and efficient manner. In response, HR managers are aggressively stepping up their recruiting efforts; redesigning their benefits programs; outsourcing for programmers; and upping the salaries of these high-in-demand specialists. This is a good start. But these measures alone won’t position companies for the long haul. They’re basically still reactive.

What will it really take to develop greater quality in greater numbers? In a nutshell: more business/academic alliances. If businesses don’t invest more time, money and resources into our schools, community colleges and universities, Corporate America simply won’t have the workforce it needs to meet the business demands of the next century.

According to the ITAA report, the current "core" IT workforce is reported to be 3,354,000. Despite the prevalence of high-tech clusters, such as Silicon Valley in California or Research Triangle Park in North Carolina, the study shows that shortages exist throughout the United States with comparable vacancy rates across geographic areas.

Says Miller: "Human resources professionals should play a critical role in promoting partnerships, but most do not have this in their job descriptions. They’re focused on retaining and recruiting employees, not on building a new workforce." That might be changing, however. According to the May survey in Workforce, 95 percent of those asked to predict the skill level of the future workforce said HR will help develop tomorrow’s necessary job skills.

The call to action also is being heard as a growing number of business leaders form new alliances with schools. Among the pathbreakers establishing new consortiums, internships and training programs are: Hartford, Connecticut-based Financial Services Company; Los Angeles-based Northrup Grumman, Norwood, Massachusetts-headquartered Stream International and Redmond, Washington-based Microsoft Corporation.

Drive for quality demands real-world aptitude.
Clearly, there’s more than just a need to cultivate more IT majors. There’s also a need to improve the quality of IT graduates, many of whom are leaving unprepared to work with the more advanced technology of the business world. Part of the problem is rooted in the historic distance between the Ivory Tower and the real world. Businesses expect schools to produce graduates who will fit their needs. In many cases, they do. But in the fast-evolving world of information technology, graduates often are ill-suited to deal with state-of-the-art business technology, which continues to advance while students are still learning about yesterday’s technology. That’s why some HR departments are shying away from recent graduates altogether. "Nearly 80 percent of the respondents to our survey indicated that most of their new IT hires come from other companies," Buckley explains. The typical graduate’s unfamiliarity with corporate culture is another problem. "The respondents expressed concern that while recent graduates had computer skills, they lacked basic business and analytical skills." Of course, no one is saying that HR should ignore recent graduates, but their lack of preparation for the real business world is problematic.

Hartford Financial Services Com-pany, which recently established its Hartford Technology Services Company, recognizes the problem. The company expects to hire 600 IT employees this year and, because management knows how increasingly difficult such recruitment efforts may be in the future, company officials already are moving toward a greater role in education, says Elaine Bordeur, IT staffing advocate. "Jack Crawford, our CIO, is involved in a consortium of area technical business leaders," she reports. "They’re working with several area colleges and universities to identify present and future training needs that business has, and to help put together college programs that will prepare students to meet those needs."

Other companies, such as Northrop Grumman, are partnering with schools through ambitious intern programs. "We’re employing information technology interns from colleges and universities in an effort to acquaint them with our company and industry, and with the types of projects available here," says Alysia Vanitizian, corporate director for employee development at Northrop Grumman. "Because we’re competing with more ‘glamorous’ industries and companies, this is one way we can establish a comfort level with future employees."

Savvy companies also realize that the most effective partnership programs should work with all types of educational institutions, small as well as large. "In some ways," Buckley notes, "communications between private industry and two-year or community colleges is better than it is with the universities."

Community colleges are essential to the pipeline.
The advantages of community colleges for partnering with corporations in the training of IT specialists are clear. First, many are near partner companies, making frequent interaction easy for both sides. Second, their comparatively low costs allow corporate dollars to go much further than they would at more expensive universities. Third, two-year programs can produce some IT graduates more quickly than four-year institutions without sacrificing quality. Finally, relatively easy admission re-quirements allow more students an opportunity to prove their mettle in the IT field.

"Partnerships with community colleges will be essential," predicts Dan Gomes, technical training manager at Stream International, a technical support service company. "Local community colleges offer education, and companies offer business expertise and cutting-edge technology. That partnership will make it successful for future employees. By bringing the two together, you’re getting a good marriage—one that knows what to teach, and one that knows how to teach."

Stream International has benefited from its close affiliation with Brookhaven and Richland colleges, both part of the Dallas Community College District, and both recipients of federal grants to train displaced workers for IT careers. "The recent $750,000 federal grant enabled us to train up to 100 people in networking, Novell or Microsoft," says Mehrdad Haroutunian, dean of corporate services at Richland College, in Dallas. "This four-tier program provided students with 350 hours of training, and allowed us to place 80 students, so far, in jobs ranging in salary from $24,000, to $72,000."

The key to Richland’s success, says Haroutunian, has been its close relationship with local businesses, such as Stream International. "We don’t ask businesses for equipment," he explains. "But we do sometimes get training experts from them."

Richland’s corporate partners also benefit from the arrangement by gaining easy access to large numbers of prospective IT employees. "We help businesses save time and money by screening people for their jobs," says Haroutunian. "Of the people who enter our program, approximately 90 percent are placed in jobs."

While Stream International (which works more closely with Brookhaven than with Richland) doesn’t directly fund any of the college’s programs, the company does provide its own course, instructors and teaching materials. The course consists of 40 percent lecture, and 60 percent hands-on training in the latest technology. "Our program is aimed at people who may lack computer skills, but who possess the right aptitude and communications skills," Gomes explains. "At this point we’ve put 350 people through training, which involves a 12-week, 240-hour program. When we get to the final 80 hours of training, and we spot students who are doing well, we tell them they may want to consider our opportunities for employment."

Develop technology training among the youth.
Many far-sighted companies, such as Boston-based John Hancock Financial Services, also are partnering with primary schools. The insurance giant began working with the Boston School District in 1979. "We’ve developed a partnership with the Mason and Stone Elementary schools in Boston," explains Les Hemmings, general director, John Hancock Education Center. "Because business is good at organizing and developing strategies, we felt we could help our local schools develop integrated strategies that would help them get more done through project teams. With these skills, they looked at measurements like never before. Students at one school worked with us in our audio-visual department, and learned how to write scripts, and create a film."

Hemmings says his company also helped students develop a fonder appreciation for mathematics by using a volunteer corps of company actuaries. "We find that most elementary teachers hate teaching math. So we sent in some of our actuaries to work with teachers while they teach math. We’ve changed the attitudes of kids who once hated math, but who now love it. We’ve also seen significant improvements in test scores."

Become a knowledge broker.
Agreement that business leaders and educators must work together to solve America’s shortage of IT professionals is gaining consensus. There’s also broad agreement that HR managers will only be effective in these efforts if they approach these new relationships properly.

Rodney Jordan, vice president of hu-man resources at Minneapolis-based Jostens Corporation, says successful programs require commitment from the highest levels of corporate leadership. "The IT shortage problem requires a multifaceted approach," he says.

At the same time, HR managers also must advance their own understanding of the IT profession and its related issues. Says Dominique Black, CEO of Red-wood Shores California-based Advanced Technology Staffing: "HR executives must become knowledge brokers. They’ll become as critical as IT folks, because they’ll chart strategies to build that knowledge. The pressure that’s now on the IT community will, within three to five years, be on the HR community because companies will need more sophisticated HR people who will know how to pick smart people for their organizations."

Miller concludes that a multi-faceted solution is needed immediately. "First, we should include community colleges, company trainers and proprietary schools in the process," he says. "Second, we need to recruit more women, minorities, elderly and disabled people. Third, we must improve communications between colleges and business to be sure colleges are teaching the right courses. And most of all, we need to cultivate a lasting partnership among industry, government and schools."

Provide continuing technical training.
Even with degrees and certificates, however, technology workers need continual development. IT professionals need to stay current on the dramatic changes they encounter on a regular basis. "Rapid technological changes make skills obsolete faster than before," says Vanitizian. "But it takes intellectual stamina to remain current, and I think people get fatigued trying to keep up. As learning professionals, the challenge is to help people assimilate information and transfer it quickly in applicable ways. This means shifting our thinking from ROI as ‘return on investment’ to ROI as ‘return on information.’ Learning professionals, including HR trainers, can contribute to the success of this environment in many ways, such as placing emphasis on how people learn."

Workforce, July 1998, Vol. 77, No. 7, pp. 52-57.