So there was yet again another article on Slashdot about IT worker shortage. A bunch of people replied saying the culprit was that corporations want to pay crappy wages and want legislation to change so they can import in cheap labor. You hear this story all the time.
“Cheap” labor? The problem isn’t with “cheap” labor. I call bullshit.
Expectations too High
I’ve noticed that there are way too many people in this industry who think that a CS degree means they’re entitled to make upwards of double what some of their non-CS peers will be making. How can a company justify someone being worth double another entry level worker who is equally smart (all things being equal here), but one has a different degree than the other?
Sure, maybe CS is harder than musicology and thus deserves more money. Maybe. But double? When you’re talking about job applicants who send you homework assignments as sample code, it’s difficult to gauge how good they are at developing. How do you know they didn’t copy a sample solution their professor gave out? Unlike in the real world, the 1000 lines of sample code could have taken four weeks and three graded revisions to get to that point. Maybe the TA helped them. Maybe it was a partner assignment.
Companies Want IT Gods
Like in most industries, there is a huge shortage of highly qualified IT professionals. The main reason this “shortage” exists is because companies are trying to consolidate many responsibilities into one, godly position.
Companies these days are looking for a very diverse skill set out of its employees. If this were a fast food joint, it’d be like looking for applicants that know how to flip burgers, take orders, mop the floor, and serve the food — all at once without causing the quality of the work to suffer.
Inexperience Costs Money
I’m not saying some applicants aren’t truly worth double. Some are. But everybody has to start at the bottom and prove their worth. Otherwise there would be a whole lot more crashing servers and unworkable software. And for every mistake you make — and as a rookie, you will make many — you cost the company. And it’s easy to extrapolate that these mistakes are very expensive if you think about who would be fixing those mistakes (and what these senior people get paid). That’s what experience is: past failures that you’ve learned from. You can’t substitute that with a degree.
A degree is another bullet point in your résumé, not a résumé in itself.
The Bust Screwed Us
Also, thanks to the Dot Com Bust, lots of otherwise qualified people exited the IT industry, leaving a pretty prominent gap. On the flip side, the Bust also generated a huge influx of less-than-qualified IT professionals who got a job as a web “developer” making $70k because they knew HTML. This helps to fuel the over-valuation of under-qualified IT employees that still exists today (not to knock on my own job or anything).
The Shortage is up Top
So as I was saying about those super burger flipper employees, if you think about it, the problem isn’t a shortage of entry level employees. There are tons of those, if you can’t infer it from my post. And to be honest, no employer expects an entry level employee to know every technology under the sun. The true IT shortage exists in the top tier of the IT employees: those responsible for managing all the little pieces. Very, very, very few people have enough experience to know how all of the little pieces in an IT department interact, or even how they should be interacting.
Think about it: how would a developer ever learn how to administrate a server? How will a database administrator ever gain an understanding for how to merge the production source code with the development branch? How does the Linux system administrator understand what it takes to secure all of the Windows machines in the office? Frankly, most of the time, they wont. The only ones who do are the ones that really stretch out beyond their roles to learn something new — and we all know that is both unusual and difficult in most organizations. As a result, when you want to hire someone who would manage the database administrators, system administrators, programmers, and networking administrators, it’s hard to find someone that would have broad enough understanding of IT to even know if the people below him are competent.
And even if you’re just trying to hire a new senior developer, the problem with IT is that technology changes constantly. As I highlighted above, companies don’t want to pay for mistakes their employees may make due to inexperience. You want to hire someone “very experienced” in a particular technology, but the problem is that the technology is still new. Of course it’s difficult to find someone who is qualified!
So is there a IT shortage? Not in the general sense, no. IT is like the gold rush of the new millennia. Lots of people got rich in the spot light doing things in IT (think MS, Apple, Google, Yahoo, etc.). In fact, I have a friend who bought a house (in full) when he was 19 after getting a job while he was 17 doing basic system administration. Granted, it was during the Boom, but when you hear stories like that, how can you not inflate your expectations?
Lots of people flocked to the field with very high expectations, only to realize it’s not all gold-lined monitors and silk-laced mouse pads. This is an issue where employees are frustrated at salaries that are lower than they thought they would be getting, and employers are unable to find qualified all-star IT staff. The times have changed since 2000: the IT employment economy became realistic.