Software developer shortage transcends international boundaries

To solve the talent crunch, more technology education is needed at the grade school level

The dearth of software development talent isn't an issue restricted to U.S. businesses. Finding programmers, especially to fill positions in the growing field of health IT, is a global challenge, said speakers Tuesday during a panel discussion on developing a health IT workforce.

"The lack of software developers is not just in health IT. It hurts the global economy," said Mary Cleary, deputy CEO of the Irish Computer Society, at the EU-U.S. ehealth Marketplace and Conference in Boston.

Technology can help health care, but there's a worldwide shortage of developers who can create the necessary applications, said Colin Reid, CEO of TotalMobile, a Belfast company that develops mobile software. The U.K. National Health Service uses TotalMobile's software and the company counts health care as one its largest markets.

"This is too important to be left to HR. It's really a business issue," said Reid, who added that the technology industry lacks female employees and could improve its efforts to reach underprivileged youth who may be interested in a software development career.

To increase people's interest in programming careers, TotalMobile sponsors the Belfast chapter of Women Who Code, a global nonprofit that is trying to increase the number of women in IT, and CoderDojo, which runs coding clubs for children and teenagers, as well as holding hackathons.

Getting children engaged with programming is especially important and the government can play a role in developing this interest, panelists said.

Reid noted that children love technology-related classes in school, but don't show the same enthusiasm for learning how to program. Attracting children to programming as they get older is challenging because they tend to avoid the discipline since they don't understand it, he said. Governments, he continued, can help remedy this by adding programming courses early in the education process.

"What young children have is no fear. They're not born with the ability to code. They need to learn technology," said Cleary.

In Massachusetts, the state's public schools introduce science and technology curriculum in the fourth grade and especially try to pique interest of girls, said Therese Murray, president of the state Senate.

"Starting from schools is really the answer," said Marwan Abdulaziz, executive director of TECOM Investments' Science Cluster, which operates a Dubai business park for life sciences companies and another for businesses in the alternative energy and environmental industries.

Employee retention is a challenge in Dubai since many United Arab Emirates workers are expatriates who plan on returning to their home nations in five to 10 years, he said. To counter this issue, the country is looking to develop a tech workforce from its native population.

But more science and technology education may not solve the tech industry's hiring challenges if the curriculum isn't relevant to the issues businesses face, said the panelists.

Abdulaziz became involved with the committee that plans the syllabus for colleges in the United Arab Emirates since it lacked business input and "was a bunch of universities talking to each other."

"At the end of the day you want your graduates to work in these companies," he said, adding that the committee now includes more business perspectives.

The United Arab Emirates isn't the only government incorporating business voices into higher education lesson planning.

Classes in Massachusetts community colleges are "tailored" to meet the IT needs of the state's businesses, said Murray. The state sought industry input on what skills would be needed over the next five to 10 years, she said.

In Ireland, Cleary's organization is auditing health care providers to ascertain what health IT skills and occupations are required and which ones are needed. The plan is to create a database that allows providers to better assess their health IT technology and staffing situations.

"We're trying to map out health IT skills," she said.

Fred O'Connor writes about IT careers and health IT for The IDG News Service. Follow Fred on Twitter at @fredjoconnor. Fred's e-mail address is fred_o'

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