IT Skills Shortage A Chance for Unemployed Workers

March 16, 2009, 09:52 AM — —

The argument over the so-called IT skills shortage has two familiar sides: On one hand, employers say they can’t find the skilled IT workers they need to fill jobs. Even today, in the midst of a worldwide economic recession that has left millions of U.S. workers without jobs, employers claim that they can’t find people with the right skills.

On the other side of the debate, legions of qualified IT workers ( CompTIA estimates there are 12 million of them) wonder how such a skills shortage exists when so many of them are looking for a job.

In the middle of this conundrum is Todd Thibodeaux, president and CEO of CompTIA, the Computing Technology Industry Association, which provides training and certification programs for experienced and aspiring IT professionals.

Thibodeaux sees both the job opportunities available in IT and the people looking for them. His mission is to connect all displaced workers — not just those in IT — to opportunities in the industry through skills training and certification. He spoke with about the job opportunities available in IT, misconceptions about IT careers, and why a computer science degree isn’t a prerequisite for an IT job.

CIO: What job opportunities are available in IT?

Todd Thibodeaux: There are about 200,000 to 300,000 good-paying IT jobs available. To this day, if you open any newspaper or browse any job board, not just IT job boards like Dice, IT jobs are in most abundance. We continue to hear from companies, whether they’re hospitals, universities or in IT, that they still can’t find highly-skilled, quality labor.

How can companies say that they can’t find skilled workers when there are so many people out of work right now? I’d think the marketplace would be flooded with quality candidates.

The companies that are doing layoffs aren’t laying off skilled IT labor. They’re retaining those workers because they know they’d be tough to replace. From what we’ve seen and what our partners in training communities have seen, the people who’ve lost jobs have been in operations, administration, sales and marketing. These people tended not to be highly-skilled. People who are highly skilled in security, network administration, and have soft client skills are in short supply.

But people in IT have lost their jobs, too. Are you saying that those people aren’t skilled, or that they don’t have the right skills, and that’s why companies are having trouble filling open positions?

That’s potentially the case. A lot of people don’t have the right set of skills, or the jobs are in different parts of the country. The shortage may be geographic-it may be that companies that are looking for people can’t find people in their area. It may also be that the jobs that are available aren’t at the right salary or in the right field for the people who are looking.

Last month, had 405,000 IT industry job postings. The number of clicks on those jobs was close to 10 million. There are a lot of jobs out there for skilled people, but there are more people looking than there are jobs. It will take those people a while to find a job, especially if they need to move, but they will eventually be reabsorbed by the market. It took a while after the dot com bust for those workers who had been laid off to be reabsorbed.

What can be done to connect unemployed IT workers with the IT jobs that are available?

One of the things that we’re trying to do as an industry organization is to raise the visibility of an IT career and to help people transition into IT careers. The federal government and state education and employment agencies can play a role here.

We’re working with local unemployment agencies in Michigan and Indiana to provide discounted training and certification programs to help people-whether they’re in IT or they’re displaced workers from other industries-get the skills they need to get jobs.

You gain access to some of the jobs, especially in companies that provide managed services such as basic workstation and network maintenance, if you start with the CompTIA A+ exam. You can do help desk work. You can do a lot of things that don’t require four year degrees or two years of work. There are opportunities. Entry level jobs are most immediately affected by the economy, but people in these jobs can upgrade their skills over time. It doesn’t take as much time as you think to acquire these entry-level skills.

Most people believe IT careers require specialized knowledge, a computer science degree. You’re saying that’s not the case?

There’s a misperception that all IT jobs require a computer science degree. The majority of IT work doesn’t have anything to do with developing websites. It’s about managing infrastructure so companies can run and administer systems. That doesn’t require computer a science degree. We’re looking for ways to educate kids about that. There are lots of opportunities in IT that don’t require you to sit at a desk and be a programmer. That’s not what an IT career is about.

So what kinds of IT jobs don’t require a four-year, computer science degree?

Managing a company’s mobile data and voice system related to deploying BlackBerrys and synchronizing those with corporate e-mail systems. Managing firewalls, network switches, security, some of the infrastructure within the corporate environment. Those jobs don’t require a computer science degree. You need to like thinking and working with your hands, working with people in an organization, but you don’t have to have four years of computer science background.

It may be that these jobs don’t technically require a computer science degree, but employers may still require a college degree, whether or not it’s in computer science.

Some of that thinking is behind the times. There are great people out there who have a lot of aptitude and who understand how IT works, and they’re not going to come in with a four-year degree. Employers are going to miss out on them.

So all it takes is a couple of certifications to do these jobs?

Getting certified is not easy. You go through rigorous training. The exam is not easy. The pass rates on exams in some markets might not be better than 60 percent.

How can people, especially people who are unemployed, afford training and certification?

There are things we could do better in the tax code to make training more affordable. For example, we could make tax credits available to people. There are a lot of employment training tax credits for people who itemize their deductions. If you’re upgrading your career, you can deduct parts of your education from your taxes. We’d like to see this option open to more people.

Also, the Trade Adjustment Assistance Program currently in place helps workers who are impacted by increased global competition. We’d like to see something similar for all transitioning workers, and we think an IT career is a great choice. Workers transitioning in Michigan, Indiana and other states are facing those issues now. We need something like that on a larger scale and more visibility for where the pockets of jobs exist.