The IT Work-Force Shortage Will Outlast Year 2000

If asked today to describe their single most pressing problem, most state chief information officers would name the Year 2000 problem. I agree: Year 2000 is consuming a large amount of my time as well as Missouri's resources. But I also believe that the attention we must give the Year 2000 problem is masking another serious problem that will persist well into the first decade of the next century. That problem is a national information technology work-force shortage.

While the government and the private sector are dramatically increasing their use of technology, the supply of new workers appears to be decreasing. A decade ago, colleges and universities in the United States graduated more than 40,000 students with degrees in computer science. Today, that number is barely more than 20,000, and many are students from other countries who return home after graduation. A survey by the Information Technology Association of America (ITAA) conducted a year ago showed more than 350,000 IT jobs awaited applicants in large and medium-size businesses in the United States. And the U.S. Commerce Department claims we will need more than a million additional IT workers by the year 2005.

As the laws of supply and demand dictate, the salaries of IT workers have soared in recent years. Government, typically slower to react to changes in the marketplace, is finding it increasingly difficult to attract and retain skilled IT workers. But while we struggle to develop coping strategies to deal with a changing labor market, the core problem is not our inability to meet the market rate, but the shortage of IT workers.

Two years ago Missouri formed a coalition made up of the state government, local businesses, and area colleges and universities to increase the IT work force in the Jefferson City area. Through such efforts as job fairs and advertising, the coalition raised the local interest level in IT as a profession and the number of evening IT courses being offered and the number of adults enrolled.

While our effort has brought people into the IT profession, in the face of a national shortage we have simply proved the laws of a free market. To wit: A Kansas City-based technology company opened an office in Jefferson City, not to go after business from local companies but rather to take advantage of the underpaid government IT labor market and the efforts of the coalition. We lost 40 employees within 90 days of the company opening its doors. Meanwhile, the Chamber of Commerce recently reported that three similar companies are looking at moving into the area. (Our requests to construct a wall around the city, allowing no one in or out, have not been well-received.)

Some in our industry speculate that the work-force issue will be resolved when the millennium bug effort is completed. I do not believe that. Many worthwhile projects have been put on hold simply because the work force is not sufficient to work on the Year 2000 problem as well as new projects. I believe there is a latent demand that will easily absorb the current Year 2000 work force, and the shortage will continue.

The National Association of State Information Resource Executives recently formed a task force to address recruitment and retention issues. So has the ITAA. I believe these efforts will gain in importance over the next couple of years as the IT work-force shortage becomes more critical. Strategies must be developed to address how we attract larger numbers of young people into the IT profession and how we attract adults working in other fields into the IT workplace. The success of these efforts will depend on the support and participation of all of us in the IT profession.

-- Mike Benzen is the chief information officer of Missouri, the president of NASIRE and an adjunct faculty member at William Woods University, Fulton, Mo.

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