Many U.S. employers will tell you they are unable to find enough people with the necessary skills to fill all of the computer and information technology jobs they have available—a problem known as the "skills gap." Some economists and employment organizations dispute that claim, however, asserting companies often are not willing to provide the training or pay the wages necessary to attract people who have the skills they say they need.
The demand for computer and information workers certainly is booming. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects 22.8-percent growth in applications-oriented software development jobs from 2012 to 2022, along with a 20.4-percent increase in systems-oriented software development jobs, and a 36.5-percent increase in information security analyst positions.
The 2012 Microsoft report "A National Talent Strategy: Ideas For Securing U.S. Competitiveness and Economic Growth" found that "throughout the nation and in a wide range of industries, there is an urgent demand for workers trained in the STEM fields—science, technology, engineering and mathematics—yet there are not enough people with the necessary skills to meet that demand and help drive innovation. Even more troubling, too few American students are achieving the levels of education required to secure jobs in innovation-based industries..."
People who work to fill those jobs agree. Shravan Goli, president of Dice, a career site for technology and engineering professionals, says, "Yes, the skills gap is absolutely real." Goli cites the low unemployment rate among technology workers as evidence that the demand for workers who do have the skills and want the jobs has soaked up the available supply. "The unemployment rate for the technology sector in the first quarter of this year was 2.7 percent," he says, adding, "there are some specific areas where the unemployment rate is even lower." Dice's research shows computer support specialists have a 2.4-percent unemployment rate, computer systems analysts and network architects 0.8 percent, and web developers just 0.7 percent.
Catherine Reynolds, founder of OnBoard Recruitment, also sees evidence of a skills gap, though she says some of it is due to employers setting very specific standards for a job. "Say you have a job listing with key requirements: so many years of experience, certain technical skills, and a certain educational background. If there's not some give-and-take in whether someone meets those requirements, it can be a long, frustrating hiring process. My clients need to be flexible, and some are. If a job is open long enough, they eventually get to that point, but if there can be no concessions made, the search can take several months."
There is no shortage of economists and researchers who argue that claims of a skills gap is a self-serving myth on the part of employers. An essay from the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) titled "Is There Really a Shortage of Skilled Workers?" asks, "If skills are in short supply, the simple logic of supply and demand implies wages should be increasing substantially....In no occupation is there any hint of wages being bid up in a way that would indicate tight labor markets or labor shortages. In fact, in no occupation have average wages even kept pace with overall productivity growth over this period." EPI's data shows wages rising less than 5 percent from 2007 to 2012 in computer- and mathematics-related fields. (Dice's annual salary survey, on the other hand, found that overall technology salaries rose 2.6 percent in the U.S. last year, following a 5-percent jump from 2011 to 2012.)
Similarly, there is conflicting data on unemployment rates. According to a Georgetown University report on "College Majors, Unemployment and Earnings," based on research in 2009 and 2010, the unemployment rate for recent college graduates in computer science was 7.8 percent; in information systems, unemployment reached 11.7 percent. Those figures suggest supply does indeed exceed demand.
Assuming the skills gap is real, what caused it?
"If you think about the last six or seven years since the recession, the biggest driver for the demand is that every company is turning to technology to make themselves more efficient," says Goli. "The demand for technology professionals who have skills in big data, mobile, the cloud—even security of late—has exploded because of the widespread adoption of the technology as a core driver for business."
Reynolds agrees: "I've recruited in technology since 1998, and there has always been a shortage of qualified workers for pure IT positions—programmers, data warehousing, positions based in an IT department. But the potential that is available in big data is creating positions not only in IT, but in marketing, finance, and operations."
Dave Hoover, co-founder of Bootcamp Education, which runs the Dev Bootcamp learn-to-code program, cites historical factors as well. First, he says, a lot of people bailed out of the tech field after the dot-com crash. After that, in the mid-2000s, conventional wisdom held that most programming work would be moved offshore, so U.S. students did not prepare for computer science careers. Those two factors reduced the flow of graduates with the education needed for the new tech boom, Hoover says.
Steps are being taken to close the gap. Hoover's company has 22 teachers offering nine weeks of intensive coding instruction to mostly twenty-something students. "The vast majority of our students have a bachelor's degree," says Hoover. Bootcamp Education bases its program partly on feedback from employers: "Part of our business is helping students get jobs," Hoover says. "We get feedback from our employer network as to where they feel the students stand and what they want to see more of."
Another option is for companies to offer relevant training, a practice Hoover encourages. "I would say to companies, don't just be a consumer of skills," he says. "It's important for companies that deal with our graduates to be prepared to onboard them." He recognizes some companies worry they will train employees only to see them jump ship to another employer; in his view, however, that's just the way it is when hiring Millennials. "You need to lean in to the fact that they are going to leave, and make them evangelists for your company; then, it's easy to find the next person."
In another approach, "A growing number of companies are starting apprenticeship programs, says Hoover, "and our students will often opt into those." Along those lines, President Obama recently announced a $600-million effort to encourage businesses to set up training and apprenticeship programs (not all in computer science fields, of course).
Companies are also working with schools directly to make sure graduates have the skills they need. "I've seen some larger companies develop internship programs in partnership with schools, which is very smart," says Reynolds. "For companies that have a data-driven business, it would benefit them as well as the students to establish those partnerships." Examples of such partnerships include the creation of the Advanced Cybersecurity Experience for Students honors program at the University of Maryland, set up with Northrop Grumman; and the IBM Client Center for Advanced Analytics, created in partnership with The Ohio State University, that university's Fisher College of Business, and other corporate partners.
Logan Kugler is a freelance technology writer based in Clearwater, FL. He has written for over 60 major publications.
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