Projected Shortages of Computer Experts Raise Questions for Academic Departments

April 14, 1998

Inside Washington
Fred W. Weingarten

On January 12 and 13, experts from industry, government, and academia met at the Claremont Hotel in Berkeley, California, to discuss the shortage of information technology workers in the United States.

The meeting was co-sponsored by the School of Information Management and Systems at UC Berkeley, the Information Technology Association of America (ITAA), and the Commerce Department, and it turned out to be, in policy and political terms, a pretty big deal. Lots of senior administration officials were there, including Secretary of Commerce Bill Daley, Secretary of Education Richard Riley, Deputy Secretary of Labor Kitty Higgens, and several other officials. Even Vice President Gore participated via a videotaped message. The issue and meeting received front-page coverage in The New York Times, The Washington Post, several other major newspapers, and the network news broadcasts.

Clearly, both the White House and Congress, particularly members from high-tech states, are gearing up to run with the issue. But, like anything else in Washington, it will not be without some complicated political battles (even within the computing profession) and possibly some significant implications for computer science and engineering education.

The issue first began to attract political attention early last year with a publicized report from ITAA--Help Wanted: The IT Workforce Gap at the Dawn of a New Century. The report, based on a telephone survey of job vacancies at mid-size and large employers, asserted a current gap of 190,000 unfilled jobs and projected the creation of more than one million new jobs in the industry by the year 2004.

Although the ITAA report received some criticism for its methodology and use of data, the additional testimonials of senior industry executives, together with corroborative data on job growth from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, lend credence to the overall message. In fact, given the extraordinarily rapid growth in the technology, the surprise would be if there were no shortage! Even if we accept the premise of a shortage (and, as indicated below, not everyone does), a lot of unanswered questions remain. The Commerce Department's Office of Technology Policy (OTP) decided to take a closer look and issued its own report last fall. OTP's conclusion is apparent in the report's title-America's New Deficit: The Shortage of Information Technology Workers.

Information Intensity Across the Economy
OTP narrowed the definition of IT workers (which was very broad in the ITAA report) to four "core" information technology professions: computer scientists, computer engineers, systems analysts, and computer programmers. Some might object to the narrowing, given the growing role of content and information specialists in the creation of systems.

The advantage is that the definitions fit current labor projection definitions and models. These days, however, a development team creating a new educational CD-ROM might consist of only one or two programmers, teamed with content experts, graphic designers, media specialists, and learning specialists. Multimedia games, even those embedded in computer games like car racing and flight simulations, rest on the work of sophisticated computational mathematicians and geometers as much as on artists and programmers. As use of the computer diffuses through society, a wide variety of expertise is needed for most applications if effective and marketable products are to be created. All might need to have more than a passing knowledge of information technology, although not all would qualify as "core" IT workers.

But the sensible approach for a policy analyst is usually to start where data are available and go from there. Based on its study, OTP also concluded that we were facing a shortage. The examination was not restricted to the continued growth of the information technology business itself, as an economic sector. Rather, the OTP analysts looked at the growth in what they referred to as "information intensity" across the economy--that is, they considered the proportion of information workers employed in industries that are heavy users of IT (banking, transportation, and so on), a proportion that is also growing rapidly. This broader look not only tells us where the demand is coming from, it also gives some clues about the skills new workers will need. It also says that the problem is not just one for the information industry-the pain of any severe IT worker shortage would be felt across the economy.

The OTP report set the stage for the January conference. The conference, seemingly intended to attract and display high-level interest in the shortage issue, had four major program elements:

  1. Presentations by administration officials and senior corporate executives about the dimension and importance of the problem.

  2. Problem-solving workshops and presentations for the exchange of information about successful programs for retraining and recruiting workers.
  3. A preliminary report of a collaborative study conducted by ITAA and a team of re-searchers from Virginia Polytechnic Institute. Like the original ITAA study, this one focused on vacancies, but it also looked at a broader range of firms from user sectors as well as from the IT industry. This study raised the ante substantially, claiming a current shortage of 346,000-129,000 in the IT industry and 217,000 in non-IT firms.
  4. A panel presentation of a surprisingly wide range of views on the issue, including some quite critical of ITAA and the Commerce Department.

The Tricky Concept of "Shortage"
The political and policy problem revolves around the concept of "shortage," which turns out to be a trickier question than most of us might think. The shortage of a commodity--gasoline, food, water, heating oil, and the like--is something that would seem to be pretty apparent to the average person. People go hungry, freeze, stand in lines, and so on.

The signs of a worker shortage may be more subtle, of course, but even more importantly, the concept of shortage itself turns out to be rather fragile in a market economy. What happens when supply falls short of demand? Prices go up. But does a price increase automatically imply a shortage? And isn't a price increase simply a signal to the market to produce more--just what we want to happen?

One problem, of course, is that labor markets are not like the markets for most commodities. We can't simply plant a larger crop of computer scientists for delivery in six months, when prices will be high, and store the excess in silos when prices fall. Delay times are very long, and signals are imperfectly transmitted and imperfectly heard, particularly when we consider that they are affecting the future career choices of youngsters.

Most of us are well aware of "boom-and-bust" cycles in our fields. On many occasions, projections of shortages and growth in demand have triggered surges of new students, who, by the time they graduate, face difficult and tight job markets. Even if market signals did get through clearly, the response time is on a time scale of years. Much of the IT industry thinks in a time frame of months, even weeks. If they can't hire the people they need to move a project forward, they will simply choose another direction.

All this means that the industry could very well perceive a serious problem, and the response of economists and statisticians is to express skepticism and spout market theory. "What is the metric for a shortage?" is the most difficult question they ask. Since the term "shortage" is itself ill defined, the question prompts a search for surrogate measures, all of which have problems.

It is easy to poke holes in the strategy for counting reported job vacancies, for example. Many of the panelists at the Berkeley meeting listed a number of such problems in their criticism of the ITAA/VPI study. Another measure might be salary inflation, but that is not always easy to document nationally either, as it gets caught up in issues of job definition, and quality as well as quantity of workers.

Even worse, the salary issue raises a tough, perhaps the toughest, political problem. When prices move up or down, there are winners as well as losers! If wages for computer experts are escalating and good jobs are plentiful, why should they complain? It's a pretty good deal, and most people like to think that pay raises are a well-earned personal reward rather than a response to general market forces. Add to that sense a healthy skepticism, particularly on the part of some in the traditional engineering community and labor unions, about the motives and practices of employers, and we have the seeds of an opposing view. If the labor unions get interested in this issue, it could make for some difficulties.

Putting the objections most starkly, one speaker at the meeting accused the information industry of fabricating the whole shortage. Why? To create pressure for relaxing immigration laws and to encourage more workers to enter the profession. This, in the view of the speaker, would drive wages down in two ways: by increasing competition for vacancies and by allowing firms to lay off older, more expensive information workers.

Nasty stuff, but a politically powerful argument, not just because the labor unions could pick it up, but because, as shown in the UPS strike, the public at large has some uneasiness and sympathy for workers caught up in the consequences of technological change. That sort of counterforce is not likely to remove the issue from the agenda. Given the obvious importance of the information economy to the nation, the political system is likely to be very reluctant to simply dismiss an issue so strongly championed by the industry. Rather, it will force a search for policies that clearly focus on issues of concern to domestic workers-job protection, mid-career job retraining, and the like. One administration official at the meeting, for example, said that there was no support in the administration for relaxing immigration rules, which labor unions and some engineering groups would strongly oppose.

Implications for Academic Departments
Let's assume that, although the metrics are fuzzy, we actually face a serious shortage of IT workers. Where do academic departments that train computer experts fit into this debate?

Obviously, with the demand estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands, the graduate- and undergraduate-level computing majors will fill a critically important, but also necessarily very small, portion of the job vacancies. Some significant growth might be called for. But the growing need for minors and service courses across the campus could place even greater demands on the departments. Some departments might find themselves playing an important role as providers of job retraining programs. And, since one answer to a worker shortage problem is more productive engineering and analytical tools, there may well be implications for research.

Another important consideration is that, although significant growth in the information sector of the economy may be pretty much a given, we still need to do some cautious thinking about the implications of that growth on the underlying demand for computing majors. Otherwise, we risk misleading our students and setting the stage for another painful boom-and-bust cycle.

To date, the academic computer education community has not participated very actively in the debate. What may be necessary now is for these departments to begin to discuss, for both the short term and the long term, the following question:

How will the projected changes in the information economy and workforce needs affect the roles of computer science and computer engineering within their own institutions and within the communities they serve-whether local, regional, or national? In particular, is the growing demand real and long term, and what are its implications for educational content?

These questions are not easy to answer, but we ought to begin the debate.

Fred W. Weingarten is director for government affairs at the Computing Research Association and a senior policy fellow at the American Library Association.

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