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What IT labor shortage?
redefining the IT in 'IT professional'

Ubiquity, Volume 2000 Issue February, February 1 - February 28, 2000 | BY Cathy Beise , Martha Myers 


Full citation in the ACM Digital Library

If the Y2K bug has taught us anything it is that we are thoroughly dependent upon technology for our survival, consequently making us dependent on our various educational resources to produce the needed IT professionals for the coming years. It is clear that the number of new IT professionals is insufficient to meet even short-term IT needs in industry. Now that worries over the Y2K bug have dissipated, the current IT shortage may actually get worse, not better, as companies begin working on projects they postponed until after the New Year.

It is true that some professionals question the existence of an IT workplace shortage. The usual justifications are that companies are hyping the perceived shortage in order to look for cheaper labor from overseas, and that the IT industry is eating its seed corn by hiring PhDs away from academia, contributing to a shortage of qualified instructors.

The real problem, however, may lie in outdated definitions of IT and of the IT professional. Failure to implement useful and current definitions of IT prevents us from collecting accurate data about the alleged shortage. Inaccurate reports may also discourage certain segments of the population from making valuable and needed contributions, or from even entering the profession at all.

IT researchers must seek to develop and use a more modern definition of IT. This will facilitate deeper understanding of any IT workforce problem, and will lead to more practical solutions. There are a number of complex and interrelated issues that contribute to this problem. Further investigation of these will offer potential, though not painless, solutions.

A Dangerous Cycle

Current IT work force issues are not completely unique to the area of career development. Consider the career life cycle, starting with completion of public education (high school in the U.S.). In a perfect world, a substantial portion of the best and the brightest would complete both undergraduate and doctoral degrees and subsequently pursue a career in higher education in order to educate the greater IT workforce. However, private industry cannot, does not, will not wait. Students with hot IT skills are lured into industry at several junctions along this career path. The end result is what is known as the "seed corn" problem. The IT industry is eating the IT seed corn, thus decreasing future yields of IT professionals.

Some data suggest that the shortage of IT personnel stems partly from the inability of academic institutions to produce enough graduates to meet current industry demand. However, these institutions currently have a very difficult time hiring enough IT instructors, because many qualified candidates have already chosen careers in industry.

On the industry side, companies hire people at high salaries and then expect them to work 60-80 hours a week, often on a regular basis. That type of lifestyle appeals almost exclusively to the young and single, and discourages many potential contributors, such as parents (especially mothers) and more mature (and perhaps more experienced) workers.

Industry is also attracting undergraduates prior to graduation if they have the "hot" skills. This is a disservice to students in the long term, unless industry commits to (and pays for) life-long IT learning for employees.

Finally, there are some reports of age-ism in IT recruiting. That is, industry is unwilling to retrain older DP people -- they believe that you cannot retrain "structured" programmers to be effective "OO" programmers. Or at least they believe that it is not cost-effective.

Industry and academia need to share responsibility for addressing these issues and finding solutions.

So what is IT?

The IT field forms a continuum that spans the spectrum from design of chips to creation of complex business applications. Traditional sources of data such as the Department of Education fail to recognize this broadening range of IT workers. Yes, tracking degrees conferred in "computer and information sciences" should account for a significant proportion of IT professionals entering the job market. However, another important contribution to industry comes from business graduates with degrees in BIS, CIS, MIS, and others denoting "Information Systems" (IS). In addition, such relatively new fields such as computer engineering and software engineering are not always captured. It is imperative that data collection processes are changed to reflect the existing and growing diversity in the IT field.

Two established sources are often referenced in discussions of the IT shortage -- the U.S. Department of Education and the Computing Research Association (CRA). The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) within the U.S. Department of Education tracks several categories that include IT disciplines: business, computer and information sciences, computer engineering, and library science.

Because IS programs frequently are offered within business schools, this large and growing population generally is ignored. Data collected within the general business category provides little IT-specific information because there are so many non-IT disciplines captured within the same group. Data collected within "computer and information sciences" is appropriate but limited to data from traditional computer science programs. Based on existing categories in the NCES data, it is not possible to accurately track students entering and graduating from IT programs.

The CRA lists eight categories with brief descriptions that include computer engineering, computer science, information science, and information systems. Beyond these categories, however, skilled professionals in technical writing, graphic design, psychology, anthropology, and other areas are all making important contributions to IT research and practice.

While the CRA takes a more modern view of IT than federal agencies, collected data yields a limited view of the IT marketplace. There is an assumption that the only statistics that matter are those collected from PhD programs in CS or engineering. Broad conclusions about IT students and faculty are being drawn from this incomplete data.

It is important to note that other PhD programs produce PhDs in IT. It is particularly important to track the IS PhDs and distinguish them from general business PhDs. Furthermore, there are many non-PhD granting institutions contributing many IT graduates to industry in a variety of positions. We conjecture that the majority of practicing IT professionals do not have a CS degree from a PhD-granting institution.

The CRA mission statement refers to the desire to "strengthen research and advanced education in computing and allied fields." Ironically, their best-known Taulbee survey focuses exclusively on "PhD Granting Computer Science and Computer Engineering Programs." Unfortunately, this is perhaps the most accepted source of data about the IT shortage. Has it generated more opinions than knowledge?

Broadening the Discipline

As the IT field matures, it becomes increasingly important to recognize at least two primary sub-disciplines: computer science and information systems. As the field evolves it will be important to carefully examine the definition of IT in order to understand market conditions and implications for society.

Successful team-based organizations identify and leverage all the potential resources available. In the best spirit of collaboration, let's recognize that contributions from a variety of disciplines and a variety of demographics are valuable and needed to meet all the challenges that confront us in IT.

Catherine Beise is an associate professor at Kennesaw State University in suburban Atlanta, Georgia. She has been an IT professional in industry, government, and academia, and has worked as a programmer, analyst, consultant, groupware facilitator, teacher, and scholar. She holds a PhD in CIS from Georgia State University, and an MS in CS from Georgia Institute of Technology.

Martha Myers is Chair and Professor of the Computer Science and Information Systems Department at Kennesaw State University in suburban Atlanta, Georgia. She has worked in industry and academia, holds a PhD from the University of Texas at Austin, and focuses her research on IT personnel issues.


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