Anyone following the employment news has probably noticed that projections for jobs in the IT sector over the next few years look pretty good. U.S. News's "100 Best Jobs of 2013" lists three computer-related jobs in the top 10. And the National Association of Colleges and Employers lists "Computers and Information Science" as the second most desirable degree for 2013 graduates.
But what does that actually mean in the world of hiring and firing? Do the numbers translate into enough jobs for the people who want them, or enough people for the jobs? Based on input from IT employment experts, the picture is far from uniform. Some employers can't fill openings, which puts upward pressure on salaries, and tony tech firms are offering lavish perks to attract and retain talent.
First, where do the IT employment numbers come from? The U.S. News ranking is based on several factors, including quality of life, but the overall opportunity aspect relies on projections from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. "We look at what the labor market will look like a decade into the future," says Roger J. Moncarz, branch chief with BLS's Division of Occupational Employment Projections. "We speak to experts and researchers, but the biggest thing is just looking at the data on what the sector has been doing."
The BLS also estimates replacement needs, or "the number of projected openings resulting from worker retiring or permanently leaving an occupation," says Moncarz. "Our job is really to determine the factors that are going to affect the outlook going forward."
The BLS's projection, as outlined in "Careers In The Growing Field Of Information Technology Services," is that "employment and output in computer systems design and related services are projected to grow rapidly over the next decade . . . at an average annual rate of 6.1 percent, compared with 3.6 percent for the broad industry category — professional, scientific, and technical services — and 2.9 percent for all industries." The BLS cites particular areas that will contribute to this growth, such as cloud computing and an increasing need for cybersecurity.
Unfortunately, more jobs doesn't necessarily mean more openings. According to Tom Silver, senior vice president at Dice, a career and job search site for technology and engineering professionals, "Skills like big data and mobile and cloud are certainly driving demand for tech pros. In those certain areas, you're in pretty good shape. But that's not the whole market. In general, tech professionals just aren't feeling confident in the overall economy, and as a result, turnover is lower than average. People aren't voluntarily changing jobs as much as they once did. That creates almost a logjam on the revolving door of tech talent." Silver estimates that Dice has access to about 83,000 jobs this year — "that's flat from a year ago," he says.
Another factor limiting movement is the aftereffects of the housing crisis. Like workers in other industries, Silver says, many tech professionals are under water on their houses, or can't sell at a good price in their location. That limits their ability to move to chase or accommodate a new job.
These factors are putting pressure on employers to fill the positions they do have. Justin Harless, market manager at Matrix, an IT staffing firm, says, "The biggest challenge our clients are facing right now is identifying IT talent, specifically software engineers. The fact that unemployment within the IT sector is nearly nonexistent, the amount of IT jobs in the U.S. increases daily, and the number of computer science graduates is drastically declining, pretty much sums up why the domestic IT talent is so hard to find."
Employers' response to this reluctance to move is what you'd expect. "When demand is growing and supply is somewhat limited," says Silver, "the price for that talent goes up. We do a salary survey every year, and this past year, the average salary for tech professionals was up over five percent from the previous year, which is the biggest increase we've seen in a long time."
Employers are also luring candidates with more than just money. Payment processing systems developer Square, for example, offers an onsite cafeteria as well as reimbursement for eating offsite (so long as the vendor uses Square for payment processing), unlimited vacation time, and other perks. "We're looking for a select group," says Chuck Lenhard, who recruits for Square." Lenhard mentions Google, Pinterest, and other high-tech companies as those competing with him for the "créme de la créme" in IT. "Our engineers can get another job in five seconds," he says. So that means "we're struggling with how to keep employees right now." Square does that by building a high-quality company with top-notch people, giving them independence and freedom — and, of course, giving them a stake in the company.
Harless seconds that as a way of retaining staff. "Between stock options, plush transportation to and from work, flex work schedules, onsite dental offices, salons, gyms, and so on, it makes it extremely hard for many smaller firms to entice top talent to make a move."
What's clear is that there's not one single IT market, there are several. "What tends to grab the headlines is the 'war for talent' — you hear about Facebook vs. Google trying to get the hot programmer coming out of school," says Silver. "In certain areas like iPhone skills, salaries are up six percent. Android, up seven percent." Those areas are growing, and employers are looking hard for the people who can fill those positions.
"But that's not the whole market, it's a niche," Silver continues. The vast majority of IT jobs are in places like banks, insurance firms, and large companies that use enterprise resource planning systems. Lenhard compares it to a group of pools — there's one large lake of "traditional" IT employment; that segment is growing steadily, but there's not a lot of turnover and there isn't as much competition for the top talent. But then there are smaller "ponds" of IT jobs at high-tech firms such as Google, Apple, Pinterest, Square, Twitter, and Facebook. Those ponds are growing faster than the larger lake, but they account for only 10 percent or so of the IT job market, Lenhard estimates. By 2020, that might be up to 15 "or even 20 percent," he projects. And among those firms, there are plenty of opportunities for those who have the right skills and fit the culture.
Why isn't education in computer science at all levels (grammar school, high school, college, senior learning centers) more visible? Education needs to do more than just teach the younger generation how to use smart phones, tablets and computers. It needs to teach them how to teach the baby boomer generation to not only use the equipment, but also to learn the technology and how to build on what they have learned and keep pace with the younger generation. At 64 I feel like a dinosaur running around amidst all these 30-something-year-old brainiacts.
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