Help Wanted (And How)

IT staff shortages are proving laborious for all concerned.

For many years the promise of a technological solution to the technology staff shortage has seemed right around the corner. Programming languages for nonprogrammers and reusable (object-oriented) software modules have offered promise, yet haven’t materialized to any meaningful degree. ComponentSource, based in Kennesaw, Georgia, is among the companies that hope to change that. It has assembled a vast bazaar of software modules, available on the Web, that in theory provide an off-the-shelf approach to custom development.

But most experts say that it will be a long time before technological innovation eases the manpower crunch. The Bureau of Labor Statistics forecast a 117 percent jump in IT positions between 1998 and 2008, making it by far the fastest-growing portion of the economy (health services is second, at 67 percent). In all likelihood, companies will have to take a multifaceted approach, wooing employees, retaining them, and using contractors and other services where suitable. It’s a management headache that’s not going away anytime soon, but companies that address it smartly may find the investment provides a real edge.

Scott Leibs is technology editor at CFO.

The Emperor’s New Clothes?

While the existence of an IT staff shortage is an article of faith in most quarters, some observers believe the situation is grossly distorted. Norman Matloff, a professor of computer science at the University of California at Davis, dubs it a myth, and has told Congress as much. He sees a number of factors at work, including a desire on the part of the Information Technology Association of America (or, more accurately, the high-tech firms that are its members) to make a case for additional H1-B visas, and a misconception on the part of human-resources organizations as to what experience is necessary or relevant.

Citing data obtained through several university studies as well as the Freedom of Information Act, Matloff argues that workers brought into the United States on H1-B visas are paid about 20 percent less than similarly qualified U.S. citizens. In theory this is illegal, but loopholes abound. It is the desire to save money, not a true labor shortage, he asserts, that prompts the call for more visas. “The ITAA admits that the biggest categories of unfilled jobs are for tech support and network administration,” says Matloff. “Yet these are not the sorts of positions at issue in H1-B visas, so there is obfuscation at work.”

Matloff also has harsh words for many HR departments, which he criticizes for screening applicants based on college grades, internship experience, and programming languages, and for failing to see the value in older workers. In his view, companies are too rigid, failing to interview candidates who would be excellent employees but lack some crucial element on paper. “Microsoft hires less than 2 percent of applicants, so how bad can this alleged shortage really be?” he asks. “If Bill Gates had stayed in college he would have been totally turned off by today’s theory courses. Lots of students are, but they are crackerjack programmers.” Matloff’s advice: students should get internships, older workers should get lawyers, and HR departments should get a clue. —S.L.

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