Report Finds Despite Layoffs, Shortage of IT Help Continues

Report Finds Despite Layoffs, Shortage of IT Help Continues

David Langstaff

Harris Miller

Paul Lombardi

It's easier to retain workers these days, according to David Langstaff, president and chief executive of Veridian Corp., a 5,000-employee information technology company in Arlington, Va.

At SRA International Inc. of Fairfax, Va., retention is up and recruiting costs are down. The systems integrator has probably half as many job openings now as it did last year, said Ernst Volgenau, president and chief executive.

The executives' comments came earlier this month at a national IT work-force conference in San Diego, against the backdrop of ongoing layoffs in the technology sector and a continuing slowdown in the U.S. economy.

While U.S. IT company sales of $800 billion last year accounted for an impressive 10 percent of the nation's gross domestic product, many high-profile firms, especially Internet-based businesses, have lost 90 percent or more of their value during the last year, according to a report issued at the conference.

Thousands of IT workers have been laid off, first at dot-com companies, and more recently at brick-and-mortar firms such as Intel Corp. of Santa Clara, Calif., Verizon Communications Inc. of New York and Dell Computer Corp. of Round Rock, Texas.

But the report by the Information Technology Association of America showed that recent experiences don't mean high-tech hiring woes are a thing of the past. Despite the rash of layoffs, the U.S. IT work force is up 4 percent from last year, from 10 million to 10.4 million. The ITAA study, "When Can You Start? Building Better Information Technology Skills and Careers," found that a continuing ? albeit much smaller ? shortage of skilled applicants means employers will still struggle to fill IT jobs, probably for years to come.

Market Decisions Corp. of Portland, Ore., earlier this year interviewed hiring managers at 685 companies for the study. These managers predicted a 12-month demand for more than 900,000 workers and a shortage of 425,000 because of a lack of qualified applicants. The figures are down 44 percent from last year, when managers predicted a demand for 1.6 million IT workers and a shortage of about 850,000.

"There is still a shortage, and it is substantial," noted Harris Miller, president of the Arlington, Va., ITAA, which has more than 500 direct and 26,000 affiliate corporate members.

"One of my biggest fears is that people will get the wrong message from the economic slowdown we're going through now, and think we don't have to train more IT workers," Miller said. "We need to make sure we have enough people with the skills background and knowledge for today's jobs and tomorrow's jobs."

Volgenau agreed. "The continuing need for IT workers is not likely to recede," he said. "I've seen continuous growth over 40 years caused by an acceleration of technology and applications of computers."

The need for skill development was underscored by the report's finding that managers are placing more emphasis on the traditional, four-year diploma in making hiring decisions. Hiring managers said four-year college degrees were the best way to bring on board necessary skills and knowledge in four of eight job categories: database development and administration, enterprise systems, programming and software engineering and technical writing.

"Last year the market was so tight, managers could not discriminate very much," Miller said. "Now hiring managers are telling us they are being a little more selective."

Staying in school, Miller said, will not only help future IT workers master technical skills, but also practice the interpersonal skills hiring managers find increasingly important.

"Just having the technical skills is not enough," he said. "You have to be able to work with other people. [Managers] want to see writing skills, leadership skills. The best way to develop those skills is learning by doing. In the minds of hiring managers, hands-on experience continues to be absolutely critical."

Forty-five percent of hiring managers want workers to have real-world experience in the job they're hired for, Miller said, making internship and mentoring opportunities essential.

But creating opportunities to learn technical and interpersonal skills ? and encouraging young people to enter the technology field to begin with ? isn't easy.

"There is a disconnect between business and education. If high-tech companies are really serious about developing the work force, they have got to start building the skills of these students now," said Victoria Deaton, chief operating officer of ExplorNet, a Raleigh, N.C., nonprofit organization working to improve technology education in underserved areas. Its programs include a computer refurbishment program for high school students and summer camps for middle school students.

"Kids are drifting away [from math and science] in middle school. We knew we had to pull them back in, and the camps are a great way," Deaton said. "If we talk to them in high school, they've already made that directional change."

Industry involvement is sorely needed because kids "don't see what education has to do with a sustainable livelihood," said Magda Escobar, executive director of Plugged In, a community technology center in East Palo Alto, Calif., a low-income community in Silicon Valley.

"The IT industry is in a position to illuminate kids ... at an individual level," said Escobar, who runs three technology training programs at Plugged In.

"Support social entrepreneurs who work with their communities. Share your business expertise; provide seed money," she told industry representatives at the ITAA conference.

Paul Lombardi, president and chief executive of Reston, Va., systems integrator DynCorp, said industry has to begin cultivating the pipeline of job candidates at kindergarten.

"It's our responsibility as senior management to bring the ideas of what this [IT] enterprise is and how [students] can get involved," he said. "Otherwise, they think it's just a building, brick, mortar and glass."

"It's a total commitment to education, not just at the college level," he said.

Industry is responding, said Karen Goyette, director of strategic initiatives for the San Diego Workforce Partnership Inc., a nonprofit community corporation that is working to grow the region's work force. San Diego has a critical need for IT professionals. The number of computer engineering jobs there is expected to grow 66 percent between 1997 and 2004.

Just over a year ago, the partnership launched a planning effort among employers and educators to assess work-force needs and design programs to meet those needs. Last month, the group received a $500,000 state grant for a project that provides employer-paid summer internships and helps schools integrate curriculum with service and work-based learning activities.

"There's a willingness on the part of many business leaders to take part, and educators are saying the same thing," Goyette said.

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