IS Survival Guide: Reasons for IT Labor Shortage

SAN MATEO (07/24/2000) - MANAGEMENT SPEAK: We offer a competitive salary.

TRANSLATION: We're like everyone else ... average.

-- IS Survivalist John Priebe provides an above-average entry to our ongoing lexicographical effort.

There's only one long-term answer to the IT labor shortage, and that's Tom Swift Jr. If you aren't familiar with the series, Tom Swift is to science fiction what Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys are to mysteries. Swift was a genius in his late teens who invented cool stuff, had lots of adventures, and always saved the day.

I grew up on Tom Swift and dreamed of doing stuff like that too.

If Isaac Asimov is to be believed (and if you can't believe Ike, who can you believe?), there's a strong correlation between reading science fiction as a child and entering a technical profession. If as a nation we want more homegrown scientists, engineers, and programmers, the long-term solution is obvious.

In the meantime, you need to hire some IT professionals but you can't find them. You can't wait until a science fiction curriculum is incorporated in the schools, the kids grow up, graduate, and enter the workforce. What are you supposed to do right now?

I wrote about the labor shortage two years ago. Little has changed since then.

There's still an IT labor shortage, and it's still mostly self-inflicted.

Recruitment ads still specify computer science degrees and long lists of specific product experience. Why? Companies run too lean, hiring only when there's a specific, urgent need. They can't afford the time needed to retrain good employees or new hires. Voila! Instant shortage. When companies aren't willing to train their employees, it's inevitable.

For example, some companies are laying off Y2K staffers, who don't have the "right" skills, while simultaneously recruiting new IT staff who do -- a process that may take three months and a $20K-plus signing bonus.

Well gee whiz, kids, you are in a pickle, aren't you? I wonder what would have happened if instead you'd spent the $20K and three months retraining the poor schmuck who worked his eyeballs out fixing your Y2K problems.

Are these companies really that dumb? It's possible. Astrophysicists say stupidity may be the "dark matter" that makes up as much as 90 percent of the mass in the universe. Unlike IT labor, there's no shortage of the stuff. But there's another possibility.

Firing unproductive employees is difficult. It's emotionally draining, procedurally intense, and legally risky. Sometimes layoffs are smoke screens that allow companies to terminate employees who aren't making the grade. Those employees may be incompetent, difficult to work with, or they may have run afoul of company politics, but for one reason or another they've been labeled as "undesirable."

Three decades ago, Harold Sackman showed that the best programmers are 20 times more productive than average ones. Imagine how bad the worst are. If you factor these folks out -- and if you're hiring, you should -- you find another reason for the shortage.

One thing is certain: IT managers can't find the people they're looking for. So if you're job hunting in IT, that puts you in the catbird seat. All you gotta do is be one of those people (and get past human resources' crack team of screeners). Which also means that if you can't find work -- and there are a lot of programmers and analysts who can't -- it's time to take a long, hard look in the mirror.

Companies are hiring. If they aren't hiring you, there's a reason.

Agree? Disagree? Send e-mail to Bob at bob_lewis@compuserve.com. Bob Lewis is a Minneapolis-based consultant at Perot Systems Corp.

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