When Will the Shortage End?
If the shortage of IT professionals is a crisis, and if the Web revolution is part of the cause, there are nonetheless many reasons why employers should be optimistic about the long haul:
As for the Web's contribution to the problem, several trends could combine to dramatically reduce the need for high-end developer skills:
- The Year 2000 problem won't last forever: By definition, sometime in the year 2000, virtually all of the applications that weren't fixed in the Year 2000 gold rush will have been discovered. My personal bet is most big company systems will have been debugged, and that older digital cash registers and the U.S. air traffic control system will be the most visible disaster points. In any event, the talent now working on the Year 2000 problem will become available again for other work sometime that year.
- The euro problem will be solved, or avoided: Companies that need to support euro billing or payments will adapt, or the European monetary union will collapse. At worst, the conversion costs will be a one-time investment, not a permanent structural draw on limited IT talent.
- Rising salaries will attract new IT people: If demand is tight, salaries will rise. This will attract new entrants into the IT field. It will also attract non-traditional entrants. An English major may take some evening classes at a community college or some specialized training in NT server administration or Web scripting. Such nontraditional entrants could join the field within a relatively short time, easing the crisis quickly.
- Immigration: During past shortages for other skills, the U.S. has relaxed immigration requirements for specific job categories such as nursing. If the IT professional shortage really is hampering U.S. economic growth, expect to see more work permits for programmers and engineers in general.
- India to the rescue: The world is becoming better wired, and communications tools such as text-mode conferencing and desktop video improve every day. Countries such as India are positioning themselves to offer programming talent for projects whose home office resides halfway around the globe.
The bottom line? Sorting out countervailing trends isn't easy. My guess is that in the long run these factors will combine to eliminate the shortage of qualified IT workers. The exporting of IT jobs may be one of the most important factors. Many will be skeptical of the idea that Web development could be exported, but Mike Ammann, a past president of the Michigan Economic Developers Association, is not:
During my visit to India it was clear that the major software companies will source more and more development within India. For example software seminar billboards announcing opportunities to learn the latest software languages were prominent in the streets of Bangalore; I don't see them in Detroit or for that matter Ann Arbor. There is an eagerness to learn and the government's Software Technology Park system targets and supports the development of software companies.
Think about it: if you can do your job effectively as a telecommuter, then others can compete for that job telecommuting from anywhere. Thus the Internet may help solve the IT crisis through transnational telecommuting.
- Web technology will improve: Automation mythology has it that the Bell System realized early in the century that a huge fraction of the female population would have to become switchboard operators; thus, they deployed mechanical switching systems. Similarly, Web site building won't always require expert support. It's already easy enough to set up a basic site, and Filemaker Pro sets the standard for creating a database-enabled Web site. Turnkey commerce systems will come next.
- Basic Web skills will become widely shared: As the Web becomes part of the fabric of business and daily life, we can expect more and more everyday folks to become comfortable with basic Web document preparation and site building. Web "development" will become part of the everyday experience of knowledge workers. Companies that today spend millions to teach Web skills to their staff will find that new hires come equipped with most of the skills needed.
- Intranet, extranet, and Internet skills will be portable: In the old days, a mainframe programmer at a bank probably worked in Cobol under DB/2 on an MVS mainframe. That programmer had virtually nothing in common with a programmer at a university or an ISP. Today, that bank programmer may work in C++ under Oracle or SQL on a Unix or NT server. Those skills could translate directly into a programming job in a wide variety of settings. Internet standards tend to create common skill sets that translate well across industries.
- A shakeout will simplify incompatible formats: Today, a company enamored with fancy multimedia formats can spend precious IT or multimedia developer skills to implement in one format, only to watch a new format evolve six months later. This sort of waste will diminish as winning formats come to the fore.
- Legacy systems will fade out: As old mainframes and old pre-Web applications are phased out, the replacement systems will be Web-oriented and Web-friendly from the start.
- CGI will die, replaced by middleware: One developer of online shopping malls told me that his implementation time dropped from three months to three days when he moved to Cold Fusion from custom CGI. By moving to middleware and to database-driven site management, Web publishers may realize enormous efficiencies. XML may play an important role as well.
- Componentware may finally yield efficiencies: Corba, ActiveX, and other component architectures have been touted as solutions to the problem of constant reinvention of code. Sun, of course, argues that Java class library repositories are the place to find reusable code. As time goes by, one or more of these frameworks for reusable objects may become viable, greatly reducing the cost of new projects.
Increasing salaries for IT professionals will also be an important factor. Hal Varian,
a leading thinker on the economics of the Internet and Dean of the School of
Information Management and Systems at the University of California at Berkeley,
Economists use price changes as evidence for shortages, and IT salaries are shooting through the roofÂ
.These high salaries attract more people to the profession (freshmen applications to the computer science division here at Berkeley are up 60% in one year!) and encourage innovation in labor-saving processes, both of which will help to equilibrate demand and supply.
So will the IT professional shortage will continue as far as the eye can see? The shortage is very real today, but my guess is the problem will abate within five years. If I'm right, then it may be a mistake for government or industry to invest heavily in new educational endeavors. In the past this country has seen shortages come and go; does anyone remember the layoffs of aerospace workers in the 1970s?
For now, it's an exciting time to be an IT professional, and, for a few years at least, you're likely to be well-compensated. Just don't assume your "unique" talents will keep you in the catbird seat very far past the millennium.
What do you make of all this?
Has your salary skyrocketed because of tight demand for your skills as an IT professional?
Would you move across country for a 20% salary increase? Or are you an IT employer,
feeling the pinch? Drop me a line and tell me your story!