Information Technology Workers in the New Economy

Article excerpt

Although the dot-com bubble has burst, demand continues to grow for skilled information technology (IT) professionals.(1) This is because IT products and services--and the workers who provide them--are found throughout the economy. The largest group is employed in computer services firms, but large fractions also work in manufacturing, financial industries, government, and retail and wholesale trade.(2) High turnover, as well as growing demand, contributes to employers' ongoing scramble to fill IT vacancies. At the same time, it is increasingly clear that IT plays a significant role in increasing national productivity and sustaining economic growth.(3) Therefore, it is important to look for solutions to meeting the Nation's need for IT and skilled IT professionals.

Some observers argue that the Bureau of Labor Statistics projection that the number of jobs for computer systems analysts and computer engineers and scientists would double between 1998 and 2008 is too low.(4) (According to BLS projections, computer programming jobs will grow at a more moderate pace, increasing by about 29 percent over the same 20-year period.) Those projections suggest IT jobs will grow slightly more than 7 percent per year over the decade, far more quickly than the 1.4-percent average across all jobs. Moreover, the ratio of annual job openings due to growth and net replacement needs is about twice that for all occupations. This indicates that the number of new domestic entrants to the occupation--an appropriate measure of minimum training requirements--is low relative to the rapidly growing number of available job openings.

One response to this situation has been an increase in the numbers of skilled foreign workers allowed to work in the United States under temporary "H-1B" visas.(5) Although offshore talent will help to fill some vacancies in the short term, much can be done to develop and deploy the IT skills of U.S. workers. Such initiatives would involve several levels of effort: (1) creative management of IT talent at the firm level; (2) an overall strategy for the public and private education and training communities; and (3) innovative training initiatives at the regional or industry level.

Education strategies aimed at increasing the supply of future IT workers can address employers' long-term needs for skilled workers. Many public and private providers of IT training are expanding their enrollments in response to growing demand. However, graduates of these programs who lack substantive work experience in the field for which they have trained will sometimes have difficulty finding work in that field. Education and training programs that include structured internships can help overcome this problem. Internships can be designed to allow students or trainees to test and refine theories and skills learned in the classroom or on the Web, providing a more complete set of technical and world-of-work skills needed to succeed and stay in the IT profession.

To keep pace with the rapid changes in the computer industry, IT graduates, such as those entering the workforce today, require ongoing formal training and informal learning opportunities, as well as a supportive work organization that encourages them to use and further develop their skills. A training consortium would enhance efforts to increase training and reorganize work for improved productivity. In the short term, more efficient management of current IT staff, including greater opportunities for formal training and informal on-the-job learning, would reduce turnover. In addition, well-developed training and staffing programs would allow employers to more easily fill vacancies by recruiting and retraining workers currently employed in other fields.

Redesigning initial IT education

In response to growing demand, more students are enrolling in IT fields at 2- and 4-year colleges. For example, the number of 2-year colleges offering degrees in computer science or information systems grew by about 15 percent during the first half of the 1990s,(6) and the number of associate degrees in these fields grew from 7,677 to 9,152 over this period. …