There is a deceptive simplicity about the shortage of information technology workers in the Washington area, a shortage that seems to be creating great opportunities for some workers and painful frustrations for others.
The issue looks simple enough. Companies are begging for more tech workers, particularly software programmers. In response, a growing tide of adults of all ages and varied backgrounds are signing up for technology courses in hopes of launching lucrative new careers.
But the opportunities have proved deceptive for a considerable number of these would-be technology workers who don't find the jobs they expected when their training ends.
What's needed is more caution -- and less -- according to the authors of a new study of information technology workers backed by the National Science Foundation.
Workers who decide on technical training need to carefully choose the courses and schools they pick in order to increase their chances of getting the jobs they want, according to study authors Peter Freeman and William Aspray.
And companies need to take more risks with promising but unconventional job applicants, such as the English majors and welfare recipients who have gone back to school to learn technology skills, they advise.
Freeman is dean of the College of Computing at Georgia Institute of Technology, and Aspray, executive director of the Computer Research Association (CRA) in Washington, which published the study, "The Supply of Technology Workers in the United States." (See http://www.cra.org/wits/cra.wits. html.)
Their assessment makes these points:
Past attempts to pinpoint the size of a tech worker shortage aren't worth much. Occupations are changing too rapidly to permit an accurate count of workers and vacancies.
If there isn't a shortage yet, there will be because there is no end in sight to the expansion of computer and networking capabilities.
If women and minorities held anywhere near the number of technology jobs that matched their shares of the U.S. population, there would no IT worker shortage.
Some schools and training firms offering technology training may not be leveling with students about how realistic their employment chances are.
The programming skills that are in greatest demand are hard to learn well, and companies are very choosy about whom they hire in these positions. The best [software] workers can be as much as 10 times as productive as the least productive workers in the same company.
"It's fairly easy to understand basic concepts, pick up some lingo and buzz words. That level of understanding can be very valuable and serve you well in certain kinds of job situations. But it's then easy to get out of your depth. Ultimately you wind up making serious mistakes or at best, simply not doing nearly as well in a career as you should be," Freeman said.
At the same time, Aspray adds, the mercurial spread of technology throughout the economy creates all kinds of job opportunities for people who aren't computer scientists or electrical engineers.
In fact, non-programming IT jobs are expanding much faster than programming positions, as the chart above shows.
"There are many IT jobs such as help desk attendant or Web designer, for which an undergraduate computer science degree is neither a common nor appropriate training," the report concludes. It does not attempt to answer the core questions of helping people find the right training that best suits their abilities and interests.
"We need a much better understanding of where the jobs are, what skills are required and who's best at providing those skills," Aspray said.
Changing Nature of Infotech Jobs
Total information technology employment:
1988: 1.26 million
Computer programmers: 45%
Computer scientists: 38%
Operations researchers; systems analysts: 17%
1997: 2.06 million
Computer programmers: 30%
Computer scientists: 60%
Operations researchers; systems analysts: 10%
SOURCES: The Urban Institute; Peter Freeman and William Aspray, Computing Research Associates