High Tech Worker Shortage: Has Anything Changed?
Alarm bells over the lack of high-tech workers in the U.S. have been ringing for years, turning the story into near-legend.
But is the worker shortfall still a fact? While a consensus is elusive, many industry experts say yes, and the problem is growing.
"When I hear from employers that there is a shortage, I believe them," says Steve Langerud, director of professional opportunities at DePauw University and a workplace consultant.
"Firms know how real it is. They see how much money it costs them by having to pay a premium for talent, and they see the money lost in services they cannot provide to clients because they don't have workers," adds Langerud.
The long-term scarcity springs from a deficient educational system, says Terry Howerton, managing partner of TechNexus, a tech incubator firm based in Chicago.
"There's been a lack of emphasis at U.S. high schools on tech education and career paths for some time," Howerton says. "Most colleges will tell you the low number of computer science students coming in is related to the shortage of graduates coming out in this field."
Concern over the high tech shortage dates to the 1980s, with a crescendo of alarm hitting in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The issue is heating up again as more companies embrace the advanced manufacturing model.
For Bob Slapin, executive director of the San Diego Software Industries Council, time has only made conditions worse.
"We've been dealing with the lack of workers over the years, but not like this," Slapin said in an email. "We currently have more than 5,000 openings, tech job openings in San Diego, that we can't fill. There is a severe shortage."
The lack of IT skill sets in particular is what's keeping many tech firms from finding the workers they need, says Ed Nathanson, director of talent acquisition for the IT security firm Rapid7.
"Skills for Java, Hadoop and Ruby [programming languages] are in great demand, but there's not enough available pool talent for them," Nathanson says. "That's why there's a lot of competition for those who do have those skills."
But it's not just finding workers with the right tech skills, says Lauren Burris, human resources director at Practice Fusion, an online electronic health records site. Some firms like hers have specific cultural needs as well.
"There's been more difficulty lately in finding candidates that are well rounded and not just an expert in their field," Burris says. "Our mission is to save lives, and all of our employees are driven by that. We don't always find those people."
To solve this lack of home grown workers, some industry analysts want revisions in U.S. worker immigration rules to let more foreign trained tech workers fill the void. Currently, some 200,000 foreign workers with science, technology, engineering, and mathematics degrees are allowed into the U.S. each year through various work visa programs.
A "reasonable" change in immigration laws — to allow more foreigners in with high tech degrees — can bridge the worker gap, says Arun Sundararajan, a professor in New York University's School of Business.
"Good immigration policy can be used selectively as a way to get newer and hard to find IT capabilities," contends Sundararajan. "It won't solve the entire shortage, but you can hire higher quality IT workers globally."
The inability to fill jobs in the U.S. has created a high-tech worker's market. The current rate of unemployment for technology workers is around 4 percent, about half the overall jobless rate, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
There's also higher pay. The average salary range for a new tech hire is $80,000 to $120,000 a year, higher than many other fields.
High price doesn't stop some firms.
But if workers are scarce and come at a high price, that hasn't stopped some high tech firms from hiring the people they need.
"We think there's an abundance of talent right here in the U.S.," says Jerry Irvine, CIO at Prescient Solutions, an IT outsourcing firm based in Chicago. "It's taking longer to find it but we are."
Prescient, with its 84 employees, made a consciou