Help Wanted (And How)

IT staff shortages are proving laborious for all concerned.

Earlier this year, Rep. Dick Gephardt (D­-Mo.) paid a visit to SkillsVillage Inc., a Silicon Valley up-and-comer. Photo ops with dot-coms have become de rigueur for politicians these days, but this was something more: Gephardt was looking for answers to the IT labor shortage, and he hoped the Santa Clara, California, staffing applications expert might offer some insight.

His trip was part of a broader federal effort to quantify, and prescribe solutions for, a problem that has existed for the better part of a decade. The dearth of computer programmers and other IT workers is a well-established fact of corporate life, but the pain is growing more acute as companies increasingly try to move at “Internet speed,” only to find that limited staff resources constrain them at every turn. Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America (ITAA), a trade group representing hundreds of high-tech firms, says the shortage “hampers economic growth from the micro level, by forcing companies to delay or cancel IT projects, up to the macro level, by playing a role in interest-rate hikes because the Federal Reserve has announced that one of the factors driv-ing such hikes is the shortage of skilled workers.”

The ITAA says more than 800,000 IT jobs will go unfilled this year, a figure that’s roughly in line with other estimates (Meta Group, for example, puts the figure at 850,000 and says shortages will continue through 2005). Certainly the anecdotal evidence confirms widespread vacancies, as CFOs and other senior management routinely swap horror stories over hiring woes. Pete Appl, CFO of hpshopping.com, a wholly owned subsidiary of Hewlett-Packard Co., says his company offers prospective hires everything from options to mentoring programs, but in the next breath he concedes, “It’s still very hard to find all the people we need.”

There is some good news. According to the Computing Research Association, the number of computer-science majors has more than doubled since 1995. And Meta Group reports that turnover rates have declined slightly, from 15 percent to 11 percent (although a rise to 13 percent by year-end is forecast).

Scant consolation, however, for companies that need people now–and most do. Meta found that while three-fourths of respondents say they are understaffed, most would increase their IT departments if they could, by an average of 25 percent. “Not only are there not enough bodies,” says Maria Schafer, program director for Meta’s Executive Services unit, “but there’s a double-whammy in that the skill sets that are available aren’t the ones most in demand.”

Farm Teams

With the labor supply short, business is making demands on government, asking, for example, that the number of H1-B visas granted to foreign workers with specialized skills be increased. This has touched off protests from the National Urban League and others (see sidebar, below), and is certainly not viewed by anyone as a long-term solution. In fact, the ITAA’s Miller, who favors an increase in visas, is quick to point out that “there is no silver bullet for this problem.” Businesses, most agree, will have to approach it on several fronts, dedicating more time, money, and thought to technology staffing than ever before.

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