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The Supply of Information Technology Workers in the United States

Executive Summary

The purpose of this study is to improve understanding of the supply of and demand for information technology (IT) workers in the United States, and the surrounding contextual issues. In conducting this study, the authors received support from the National Science Foundation, collaboration from five other professional societies, and guidance from the Computing Research Association Board of Directors.

There are four major contributions in this study:

1. Evaluation of data. The report identifies and evaluates all the major sources of statistical information relevant to this subject. The study group found that federal data are by far the most important and reliable, but that they have some serious shortcomings related to untimely reporting, occupational descriptions that are out of date and based on ambiguous job titles, and incompatibilities between supply and demand data collected by different agencies.

There are other data sources. However, it is questionable whether results drawn from geographically restricted and occupationally restricted data studies of IT workers can be generalized to the national IT labor force; and many of the national studies of IT workers done by private organizations have methodological weaknesses (see chapter 9).

2. Definition of 'IT Worker.' This report outlines a way of distinguishing IT workers from a much larger class of workers whose jobs are enabled by information technology. It then classifies IT workers into four categories (conceptualizers, developers, modifiers/extenders, and supporters/tenders) based not on their job titles, but on skills and knowledge required to do the job. An initial test of this categorization scheme in the State of Georgia has illustrated its value (see chapter 2).

3. Description of the Supply System. Some of the participants in the national debate identified bachelor's degree training in computer science as the principal supply source of IT workers. This report presents a detailed description of a much more extensive supply system, including not only majors in twenty different IT-related disciplines at the associate, bachelor's, master's, and doctoral levels, but also many people majoring in science, engineering, business, and even non-technical disciplines who often take some course work in IT subjects (see chapter 5).

The supply system also includes an increasingly important and rapidly growing continuing-education element. This continuing education is supplied not only by the traditional higher education system through short courses and certificate programs, but also by for-profit educators and by companies that are employing the IT workers. New modes of delivering instruction, such as asynchronous learning over the Internet, are rapidly being deployed (see chapter 6).

4. Analysis of shortage claims. The report evaluates the question of whether there is a shortage of IT workers in the United States. The study group determined that the data are inadequate to ascertain what mismatch there is, if any, between national supply and demand. Therefore the report makes use of a variety of other quantitative and qualitative kinds of evidence. These include: secondary indicators, such as wage growth and labor certificates awarded, based on federal data; quantitative studies restricted to specific geographical regions or specific IT occupations; private studies of the national IT labor market whose methodologies have come under question; anecdotal evidence about how employers have acted in their search to recruit or retain workers, or take alternative solutions such as refusing work or replacing workers by machines; and other kinds of qualitative evidence.

The preponderance of evidence suggests that there is a shortage of IT workers, or at least a tight labor market. None of this evidence has the certainty of a direct count of supply and demand, and without this kind of direct count it is impossible to distinguish an actual shortage from a mere tightness in the labor market. Moreover, there are credible reasons for questioning the evidentiary value of virtually any piece of evidence that is available (see chapter 4).

One of the problems with the national debate is that IT workers have been treated as a single, undifferentiated group. However, the phrase 'information technology worker' encompasses many different occupations that require a wide array of skills and knowledge. It would be helpful in future discussions to segment the class of IT workers into classes of occupations that have similar levels of knowledge and skill. It would be surprising, given the dynamism and demand in the IT labor market, if there were not some spot shortages (and some spot surpluses). Unfortunately, existing data do not allow this kind of segmented analysis.

Of the many contextual issues that need to be considered to gain a full understanding of the supply and demand of IT workers, this report examines four:

5. Political context. The study group evaluated the reports by the Information Technology Association of America (ITAA) and the Department of Commerce, as well as the criticism of these reports by the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO). We agree with GAO that the low response rates in the surveys of industrial demand are a serious weakness in the ITAA and Commerce reports; but this speaks against the quality of the evidence, not necessarily against the conclusion that there is a shortage. The ITAA and Commerce reports can also be faulted for their narrow focus on recipients of computer science bachelor's degrees when discussing the supply of IT workers (see chapter 1).

The legislation providing a temporary increase in the number of temporary visas permitted annually under the H-1B visa program was also reviewed. CRA and the other professional societies participating in this study did not take a position on the H-1B increase when it was being debated in 1998, and it is not our intention to second-guess the program now. We believe that the legislation probably will increase the total supply of workers during a period of episodic higher demand created by the Y2K problem, while limiting the risk to the indigenous supply system through a sunset clause on the increase in visas awarded (see chapter 1).

6. Types of demand. This report differentiates two kinds of demand. There is episodic demand, such as this country is experiencing currently as it struggles with the Y2K problem and the sudden spurt in Internet activities. There is also a long-term demand, created by fundamental changes in technology and society. The long-term demand for IT workers is driven by the relentless decrease in the size of information technology, as well as its relentless increase in performance, reliability, flexibility, and price-for-performance. Because of these changes, information technology is rapidly being adopted by every sector of American society and made a fundamental part of organizational operations and personal activity. Perhaps the greatest weakness in the H-1B legislation is that it focuses on a short-term problem created by an episodic demand. It does not address the long-term problem of providing an adequate supply to meet the demand for IT workers that is likely to continue to grow unabated well into the new millennium (see chapter 3).

7. Limitations on action. Even when organizations recognize a mismatch between supply and demand that they would like to overcome, there are almost always limitations on their ability to act. A government organization cannot regulate supply and demand; it can only provide incentives, such as fellowships, to encourage students to choose an area of expertise that appears to be in short supply. But it is difficult for a government to stimulate labor supply by just the right amount since the market is constantly changing, knowledge about supply and demand is imperfect and difficult to obtain in a timely fashion, and there are often unforeseen consequences of any government action.

Industry has its own constraints. For example, companies are forced by short product life and short product development cycles to hire new employees or reassign existing workers in ways that do not require a lot of break-in training before they can be productive.

The traditional higher education system is constrained by its inability to change directions quickly. This results from its limited resources to allocate to new or growing disciplines, the long-term commitment colleges and universities make in buildings and capital equipment or in tenured faculty appointments, and its deliberative style of decision-making (see chapter 3).

8. International considerations. There is a rising international demand for information technology. Companies throughout the world are taking advantage of the changes in information technology that allow them to use it to improve their operations. There is increasing global competition to supply IT products and services. International and foreign firms are thus competing with U.S. firms for the skilled workforce to develop IT products and services and place them into operation. Only a few countries (e.g., India and Ireland) have a surplus of IT workers; and there is strong competition from many countries, including their home countries, for these workers. The United States will have to assure an adequate supply of IT workers if it wants either to retain its world lead in the IT sector, or remain competitive in other industry sectors that rely on information technology. Foreign workers can play an important role in the United States, but they are unlikely to help meet our growing demand for IT workers in this manner (see chapter 3).

Other topics. This study could only touch on a number of other topics that are important to adequately understand IT workforce issues. A number of groups are underrepresented in the IT workforce and in the educational programs that prepare people for careers as IT workers. These include women, Hispanics, African Americans, and Native Americans. If these groups were represented in the IT workforce in proportion to their representation in the U.S. population, this country would have more than an adequate supply of workers to fill even the most dire estimates of a shortage. Because other studies have investigated the underrepresentation of women or minorities in professional work, scientific and engineering fields, including the computing profession, this study chose to focus its efforts on other issues that have been less thoroughly investigated. However, some basic information and statistics about the issues concerning the participation of women and minorities in the IT field have been collected here. Some of the issues concerning women mentioned here are the lack of adequate exposure to computers during the K-12 years, the scarcity of role models, and perceptions about what it is like to be an IT worker (e.g., competitive work environment, focus on machines rather than people, and so on). This study found many of the issues for minorities to be similar to those for women; but there is the added problem that minorities are not as likely as white males or women to attend college or graduate school. It is clear that these issues of underrepresentation need more attention than they could be given in this study (see chapter 7).

It may also be true that older workers are underrepresented in the IT workforce. There is certainly a widespread perception that programming is an activity for the young, and that IT workers tend to get "burned out" and leave the field by the age of 40. The absence of almost any data precluded this from being a major topic of study in this report. The study group looks forward to the examination of this important issue in a forthcoming study by the National Research Council (see chapter 7).

Some people are concerned about a seed-corn problem: that the high industrial demand for IT workers is siphoning off too many graduate students and faculty from the universities, leaving an insufficient number to educate the next generation of IT workers. This study detected preliminary signs of a seed-corn problem. The coordinated efforts by government, industry, and academia to solve a seed-corn problem in computer science that occurred around 1980 are recounted. Some of the problems today are the same as in 1980, such as the rapid increase in undergraduate enrollments placing heavy loads on faculty. However there are also some differences: universities today have better research equipment, compared with that in industry; than they did then; however, research support now emphasizes short-term research too much, and it is harder for industry to coordinate voluntary restraint on faculty and student raiding today because the industrial employers of research computer scientists are today much more widely spread across many different industries (see chapter 8).

The authors struggled with the decision whether to include recommendations in the report. The mandate for this study was to provide an understanding of the issues surrounding the supply of and demand for IT workers, not to provide a call for action. In most policy reports, the recommendations have primacy and the analysis is included merely in a supporting capacity. The study group did not want the presence of recommendations to undermine the attention paid to the analysis. Also, as a study group, we do not have any particular standing within the government, industrial, or academic sectors from which to recommend actions.

On the other hand, a number of important issues were raised and actions suggested by the study group during the course of the study. Given the wide range of knowledge and experience represented by the study group, we decided it would be useful to put these suggestions forward in the hope that they will stimulate further discussion and action. Mostly, the recommendations identify a problem and a general course of action without trying to be specific about implementation mechanisms.

The thirty-seven recommendations are grouped around a small number of issues: data-collection practices, industry-academic cooperation, industry hiring and training practices, certification of educational and training programs, broadening the supply pipeline, improving the research and teaching environment to retain and recruit faculty, and curriculum development. The recommendations are organized according to intended audience: government, higher education, industry, professional societies, and individuals (a summary of the recommendations can be found at the end of chapter 10 as box 10-1).


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Document last modified on Wednesday, 04-Apr-2012 06:51:20 PDT.