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Communications of the ACM

Communications of the ACM

The Global IT Work Force: Introduction

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Examining a topic such as the IT work force is, at best, elusive. When we initially proposed this special section to Communications last summer, the IT work force shortage was intense and the topic of great debate. As we write this introduction less than a year later (March), the situation has become a bit more subdued, particularly in the U.S. [2]. One reason for this change may be the sizable expansion of the H-1B visa program allowing nationals of other countries to come to the U.S. for various types of employment, including IT. More significant changes, however, have resulted from the precipitous downturn of Nasdaq and the slowdown of profitability and expansion of the U.S. economy in general and the IT sector in particular.

We witnessed a similar situation during the recession years of 19891992. Immense IT work force shortages and extraordinary turnover among IT workers were suddenly dampened when demand for workers shrunk with the economy. In the long run, however, we see the continued growth and evolution of IT and anticipate future IT work force shortages and turnover issues. While the pressures may not rise uniformly, we can expect them to return in full force, even if they are presently, and temporarily, moderated.

In an effort to put the volatile work force issues in perspectiveon a global scalewe have assembled this special section with the goal of generating awareness and discussion. The stories within cover a broad set of interrelated topics affecting all citizens of the world economy and IT professionals. In particular, we aim to consider three observed trends: The disturbing decline of women and minorities in IT, the economic impact of the IT food chain, and the competitive beast that is the IT industry.

Historically, there has been a disproportionately small representation of women and minorities in the IT field (particularly in the more prestigious and higher salaried fields of electrical engineering and software engineering). This wasted potential is exacerbated by the tendency for older workers to find it increasingly difficult to enter or retain appropriate employment as they age.

The IT food chain, where workers from less developed countries leave home to work in higher GDP countries and faculty and public sector workers shift to more lucrative work in industry, is another influential trend. This practice enlarges the digital divide for already poorer countries as well as thins the ranks Work force find how such trends may also degrade the overall IT work force. In some cases, tactics, local policies, and infrastructures for recruiting, training, and retaining workers in the IT field that produce successful results for individuals or organizations may inhibit the long-term health of the profession.

The U.S. economy plays a key role in this story. Indeed, a U.S.-based work force downturn may somewhat alleviate staffing pressures globally. However, other economiesnotably the European Unioncontinue to report massive shortages with projected shortages persisting into the future. Other developing economies are so far understaffed that the U.S. slowdown will serve to provide only marginal relief. More important to this special section is to question whether the global industry can be healthy if it regards economically less developed countries as a convenient reservoir to even out U.S. domestic staffing fluctuations.

We must also recognize that although our focus is on IT workers, many of the same trends and tendencies pertain across the board to professional, white-collar work. Trends toward doing more with less, downsizing, flattening management structures, and continual expansion of goals and objectives pervade corporate life in the later 20th and early 21st centuries, affecting IT workers along with many others. These trends will vary with the type of employer (for example, those who work producing software packages vs. those who work developing applications and infrastructure for non-IT product firms) and the degree of technical content in the IT worker's role.

More important to this special section is to question whether the global industry can be healthy if it regards economically less developed countries as a convenient reservoir to even out U.S. domestic staffing fluctuations.

This special section features a series of articles and essays examining many of the issues and challenges facing today's IT work force, including recent findings from a long-term study of factors that influence womens' participation in the IT work force. The authors also explore some of the economic forces that promote global IT work force immigration, the strategies for retention of IT workers within an organizational setting, and examples of programs that aid in preparing some non-IT workers for entry into the IT field. We also present an array of brief perspectives from many points on the globe that serve to reinforce the global applicability of some issues raised in the feature articles and identify the issues that do not necessarily translate globally.

We should point out these topics represent a first step in considering the many issues and questions that surround the global IT work force. A select special section such as this is intended to bring varied perspectives and solid information about these problems to the foreground for informed discussion.

It is our intention to spark debate and deliberation regarding the following additional key points:

  • The statistics are clear that women, minorities, and older workers, at least in the U.S., are not fully represented in the IT work force. Consider that two of the articles here (von Hellens/Nielsen and Trauth) discuss cultural variations in participation by women. In both cases, the variations are observed among different ethnic groups working side by side. Firms may need to do more than refrain from discriminating against less-represented groups and take positive action to make the workplace more attractive. To take advantage of the full capacity of available workers, work and job design as well as organizational culture may need to be reorganized to support a broader array of individual contributions. For example, some benefits popular with workers, such as telecommuting, have been declining in popularity with companies [1].
  • Due to the competitive nature of many industriesnotably any business running on Internet timeit is argued that firms can afford to keep only the most productive staff working at maximum capacity. Although this can lead to an exciting workplace, it can also be viewed as what Yourdon [3] called "death marches." This can lead to a killer pace of work, high levels of turnover, burnout, and ultimately, high levels of attrition as workers leave not only the particular firm but the IT work force. However, due to the extraordinary monetary rewards at stake, individual firms will be more profitable with such human resource policies. As a result, decisions that benefit individual firms, workers, and nations in the short-term may not lead to a strong international IT industry in the long-term.
  • Some firms experience significant personnel shortages for highly technical and specialized jobs, while at the same time encountering a balance or even surplus of candidates for entry-level positions. This can create difficulties for those unable to get a start in the IT field but who could ultimately progress to a level of expertise where they could provide highly specialized and valuable contributions. At the same time, some firms find that providing additional training for entry-level IT staff can provide higher market value than they are prepared to pay, thus the staff leaves for better paying jobs with firms that achieved a competitive advantage by avoiding training costs. A lack of abundant entry-level jobs and training for increased technical specialization can harm the long-term health of IT.
  • While additional technical training can improve the employability of individuals, it also has a shelf life. Just as firms take a risk that individuals might leave after receiving expensive training; individuals take the risk that the expensive training they undertake will quickly become obsolete. As technical skills become more highly specialized to particular software products, these skills have a greater potential for obsolescence. Many individuals will be able to transfer general skills from one technology to another, but employers do not always recognize this ability. Indeed, firms frequently seek as detailed a level of skills in the new technology as the individual had in a previous oneskills beyond those readily transferable.
  • Myths about the potential contribution and retrainability of older workers lead to underutilization and unnecessary loss of workers. We hear many anecdotes regarding how difficult it is for those highly experienced in 3GL to become adept in object-oriented approaches. Even if this is true, it is not clear how general this phenomenon really is and if it can be overcome with targeted training methods and approaches such as "refactoring" to aid developers of code experienced in traditional approaches to be more effective in the object-oriented environment.
  • Drawing workers from one location to another results in complex equity issuespotential shortages exacerbated from where workers are drawn, but potential benefits from those returning with increased experience levels. Currently, countries such as India and China are reportedly experiencing some gains from repatriating individuals returning with broad skill sets and diverse experiences. However, both India and China have very strong educational systems and relatively stable political regimes. Not all intellectual-capital exporting countries are in a position to profit from having their citizenry return.
  • All computer-related academic communities are currently suffering from some degree of the "seed-corn" problem. Work in industry can be so lucrative and intellectually rewarding, that many faculty are leaving academia, thus rendering it increasingly difficult to provide development of the next generation of IT workers. Many hope that new online education and training opportunities will address part of this problem.
  • What should be the role of government and non-profit organizations, including membership groups such as ACM and professional unions, in expanding, certifying, and supporting the IT work force?

We hope the readers of this special section find it as stimulating as we did in steering it to fulfillment. We thank the authors for their contributions and particularly members of the special interest group on computer personnel research (SIGCPR) where investigation and debate on these and related issues have been occurring regularly for several decades. We look forward to receiving ongoing contributions to this debate.

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1. Harris, B. Companies turning cool to telecommuting trend. Los Angeles Times. (Accessed Mar. 13, 2001);

2. Markey, P. Recruiters see less frantic pace in tech hiring. Reuters. (Accessed Mar. 13, 2001); ticker/story.tmpl?url=/news/feeds/pf/ticker_search_reuters_spo/defaultCA=0D3309CA_7&display=/ns/pf/news/ticker/story_detail&symbol=intc

3. Yourdon, E. Death march: The complete software developer's guide to surviving "Mission Impossible" projects. Yourdon Computing Series, Prentice Hall, 1999.

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David Arnold ( is a professor of computing science in the School of Information Systems at the University of East Anglia, Norwich, England.

Fred Niederman ( is a Shaughnessy Associate Professor in Decision Sciences and MIS at Saint Louis University, St. Louis, MO.

©2001 ACM  0002-0782/01/0700  $5.00

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The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2001 ACM, Inc.


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