Monday, February 4, 2013

Government IT Worker Shortage

A couple of weeks back, Government Technology put up a piece titled "6 Ways to Address the IT Labor Shortage".  Some state and local governments are facing shortages of IT workers, particularly in system administration.  The problem is going to get worse, as states are looking at as much as 40% of their workforce retiring over the next decade.  Further, according to the article, the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics is forecasting that job openings for IT workers are going to grow faster than the number of candidates graduating with appropriate bachelors degrees.  The four-year degree distinction is significant; many state civil service systems require a four-year degree as an entry hurdle for "professional" positions.

The six ways pretty much boil down to the same thing: push more kids into STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) fields of study, and tailor those studies more to real-world demands.  Since system administration seems to be the worse problem, the goal would presumably be to have new grads emerge with both theoretical knowledge and hands-on experience.  I understand that position, but do point out that the professors who teach at schools granting four-year CS or software engineering degrees are probably going to push back against teaching, say, Microsoft Windows certification classes.  That's not why they went into academia.

Changing gears for a moment, readers at Slashdot (News for Nerds) are regularly pointed at articles like the one titled "Programmers: Before you turn 40, get a plan B".  The articles -- not all written by old geeks like me -- assert that age discrimination is alive and well in the IT world, and oldsters are pushed out.  Depending on any particular author's views, it may be described as being "pushed out", or it may be described as "left voluntarily" because they are no longer willing to put up with insane hours and management that is frequently clueless about IT.  The articles generally point out that the drop-off with age in employment within IT is much more pronounced than the drop-offs that occur in other engineering fields.  Suffice it to say that there are a substantial number of Baby Boomers (persons aged roughly 48-66 as I write this) who were IT folk but are now doing something else for a living, voluntarily or otherwise.

Since I'm a Boomer myself, I feel entitled to say unpleasant things about us.  As a group, the Boomers are ill-prepared for retirement.  Some of it is because, as a group, we didn't save enough -- many of us, for example, because we thought owning a house whose price soared during the bubble meant we didn't need to save otherwise.  Some of it because we have been through two serious stock market declines whacking our savings over the course of a critical decade. Critical in terms of where it fell relative to retirement age -- a big market decline in the decade before you plan to retire means there's not enough money [1].  When I was taking public policy classes at the University of Denver as a 50-something, I often told my 20- and 30-something classmates that as part of the policy-making cadre, the first crisis they would have to deal with regarding the Boomers wasn't the bankrupting of Medicare or Social Security, but would be that the Boomers as a group couldn't afford to retire and the US private sector wouldn't be prepared to employ us.

While there are a lot of details that would have to worked out, there certainly appears to be an opportunity for a win-win situation here.  The governments appears to need people now, not just in several years after a STEM education program ramps up -- assuming a push for STEM education actually produces that needed bodies.  Given the number of articles like the one referenced above, I'm not sure that it will be easy to push young people into what appears to be a dead-end career, particularly when doing so requires years of difficult study.  I understand some of the obvious arguments against this type of fix: that the Boomers lack exactly the right skill set, that they aren't long-term career employees, etc.  At the same time, the Boomers are available now, and one of the purposes of requiring a four-year degree is to hire people who have "learned to learn" and can acquire specific new skills relatively quickly.  We ought to be able to work something out.

[1] It may be significant to note that Boomers who have had a long-term career in state or local government positions -- the 40% of the workforce that the article fears will retire over the next decade -- are probably in better shape in theory than many.  Governments are pretty much the last employers still offering defined-benefit pension plans with cost-of-living increases.  In practice, there is some question as to whether state and local governments will actually be able to deliver on those pension promises over the long haul.

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