Computing Applications The profession of IT

A Technician Shortage

In our elation about rising CS enrollments, we are overlooking a growing shortage of computing technicians. Our education system is not responding to this need.
  1. Introduction
  2. Technician Shortage
  3. Investments in Training and Continuing Education
  4. Finding the Way Out
  5. References
  6. Authors
  7. Tables
A Technician Shortage, illustrative photo

On the tenth anniversary of this column, we took stock of changes in the computing profession since 2001.2 Computing had become the umbrella term for our field, rather than information technology (IT) as was expected in 2001; IT referred mainly to technology and business applications of computing. Several new professions had appeared within computing to support changes such as big data, cloud computing, artificial intelligence, and cyber security. Certification of important skill sets was more common, but professional licensing had not advanced very much. Finally, there was a sharp drop in enrollments in computer science departments around the world, to about 50% percent of the 2000 peak. Many considered this a paradox because computing jobs were growing and digitization was moving into every field and business.

In 2007 CS enrollments bottomed and began to rise steadily, attaining in 2013 75% of the peak level. Surveys show students are taking up computing not so much because they expect good salaries, but because they perceive computer science as compatible with almost every other field. A major in computer science gives the flexibility of deferring a career choice until graduation.

This reversal has brought great rejoicing among computer science academic leaders. Their attention is focused on coping with the surge of enrollments, which seems like a happy misfortune.

But the surge diverts attention from an underlying big, messy problem. Most CS university graduates are heading for the currently plentiful elite designer jobs, in which they will create and design new computing technology. There are a great many more unfilled technician jobs and more will be needed to support the infrastructure.

Who will operate and maintain the information infrastructure on which so much else depends? That is our worry. Universities say they are not preparing technicians; training is outside their scope. Technician jobs, which do not pay as well as the designer jobs, do not attract the university graduates. Community colleges and two-year colleges do not seem to have enough capacity to meet the need. There are few programs to transition workers displaced by digital automation into these digital technician jobs.

As our graduates find more and more clever ways to automate knowledge work, the number of displaced workers will rise. The displaced would readily take the IT technician jobs but the education system offers them few paths for retraining. To quote The Economist (Oct. 4, 2014): “Vast wealth is being created without many workers; and for all but an elite few, work no longer guarantees a rising income.”

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Technician Shortage

To begin, we acknowledge there is controversy around whether there is a shortage of IT workers.1 The whole market of IT jobs does not worry us; just the segment we call technicians.

The U.S. Labor Department defines IT technicians as those who diagnose computer problems, monitor computer processing systems, install software, and perform tests on computer equipment and programs. Technicians also set up computer equipment, schedule maintenance, perform repairs, and teach clients to use programs. Technicians need strong knowledge of computers and how they operate, including a broad understanding of hardware and software, operating systems, and basic computer programming. Many technicians must be familiar with electronic equipment, Internet applications, and security. Technicians may also need good communication skills because they interact frequently with people who have varying levels of IT knowledge.

The U.S. Labor Department reported in September 2014 that 16 million mid- and low-skill workers had been displaced by automation and would presumably become employed if they could be retrained. If those people and the underemployed (people with part-time jobs seeking full-time employment) were counted in the unemployment figures, U.S. unemployment rate would have been 11.8% rather than 5.9% in that September. Even retrained workers have had difficulty finding employment. One reason is that employers prefer people with specialized knowledge of their systems. Another is age discrimination—people in their 50s have a much more difficult time finding employment in IT companies than those in their 20s and 30s.

For perspective see the accompanying table, a map of the subdivisions of the computing field (adapted from the 2011 column2). The computing departments in the universities are, of course, focusing on the education in the computing core disciplines. Similarly other academic departments are focusing on the computational part of their fields. Who is focusing on the third column, the computing infrastructure technicians?

Not the computing departments in four-year colleges. In fact, they call that form of education “training” and say they do not do training. They leave the “training” to two-year colleges, career academies, and a growing number of private firms that offer training certificates.

The Manpower Group (http://www.manpowergroup.com/talent-shortage-explorer) lists 10 jobs employers are having most difficulty in filling. The top ones globally include skilled trades, technicians, engineers, sales representatives, and IT staff. Many skilled tradespeople, engineers, and IT staff fit our definition of technician given in this column.

An example of a technician shortage can be seen in the cyber operator category. Cyber operators manage networks and provide for network security The U.S. Department of Defense has been looking for 6,000 cyber professionals since 2012. In 2014, they had filled 900 and still hoped to fill them all by 2016. Whether they can is an open question.4

The report “Job Growth and Education Requirements Through 2020” (http://cew.georgetown.edu/recovery2020) says that 66% of job openings by 2020 will be sub-bachelor. Most jobs will require some post-secondary education and will rely more on communication and analytic skills than on manual skills. Those with only a high school diploma will have fewer employment options. Education at the sub-bachelor level is very important and yet is not well funded. For example, The Brookings Institution in “The Hidden STEM Economy” (http://www.brookings.edu/research/reports/2013/06/10-stem-economy-rothwell) notes there are many sub-bachelor STEM jobs, but only one-fifth of U.S. federal spending allocated for STEM education goes to sub-bachelor education such as two-year colleges.

The huge and growing demand for providing training in computer coding to young people (code.org, codeacademy.org, khanacademy.org, coderdojo.org, girlwhocode.com and more) demonstrates that coding is a sub-bachelor STEM skill in high demand and that young people are eager to learn it. Coding is the basis of many technician skills in IT. We are also concerned the current surge of interest in coding should not become a dead end, but open a path to the full set of principles making up computing science.

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Investments in Training and Continuing Education

Given the importance of finding qualified employees and keeping them from becoming obsolete, one would think that companies are investing in training of prospective employees and continuing education of onboard employees.

Yet there are worrisome reports that this principle is not widely accepted. An IBM division recently declared it would reduce salaries of employees by 10% for a six-month period while they were receiving training.5 The training was needed to maintain their qualifications for their future jobs. For IBM, this is a sharp break from its own history of supporting education and professional development of its people. We understand that other IT industries are considering similar policies of “cost sharing” for required training. Such policies would be disastrous if they became widespread.

Another worrisome aspect is that many companies are not investing in R&D, equipment, and training, which all affect their long-term future. Many are plowing their cash into stock buy-backs and some are going into debt to do so. The Economist (Sept. 13, 2014) said: “In 2013 38% of [U.S.] firms paid more in buy-backs than their cash-flows could support, an unsustainable position. Some American multinationals with apparently healthy global balance sheets are, in fact, dangerously lopsided. They are borrowing heavily at home to pay for buy-backs while keeping cash abroad to avoid America’s high corporate tax rate.” Financial Times listed six major IT companies in the top 10 engaged in buy-backs. The policy climate is drawing companies into short-term decisions that do not align with their long-term interests.

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Finding the Way Out

Education is the key to opening a path for people to move from a displaced position into a technician position that would give them productive work and a chance at rising pay, while easing joblessness and blunting the inequality between the IT elite and the rest of the workforce. Colleges and universities will not be of much help in the short run because they do not see themselves as part of the “training” side of education.

One promising means is a new kind of organization called Regional Talent Innovation Networks (RETAINs).3 They are non-profit intermediaries that link K–12 schools, two-year colleges, community colleges, and workplace-based training and education. Their goal is to produce well-educated STEM talent to support a technology-driven economy. Examples include High School, Inc. in Santa Ana, CA; the Vermillion Advantage in Danville, IL; the New North in northeastern Wisconsin; New Century Careers in Pittsburgh, PA; and the Steinbeck Cluster in Salinas, CA. There are more than 1,000 RETAINs across the U.S. and around the world.

Coding is the basis of many technician skills in IT.

RETAINs are particularly attractive to small business owners because they offer a viable way of pooling their resources in joint programs that will inform, attract, and prepare skilled workers for IT and other growing regional industries. RETAINs link regional employers, educational institutions, and other community organizations together as a collaborative network, thereby reducing the individual company’s investment in employer-provided education and training. RETAINs promote a more positive overall regional business culture of sharing rather than stealing workers from each other. We think RETAINs will play a key role in the reeducation of workers displaced by digital automation.

Another promising means is the career academy. These high schools blend a stronger liberal arts curriculum with specific practical career education courses and internship experiences. Over 2,500 comprehensive career academies are already operating. Many are stand-alone learning communities within larger high schools. Some are stand-alone career high schools in health care, IT, and various STEM areas.

Because the demand for sub-bachelor skills is so obvious, private entrepreneurs have been starting businesses to provide inexpensive online training. The MOOC, which makes university-level courses widely available, has not yet tackled the technician shortage. The online competency based module (OCBM) is closer to the mark and a growing number of companies are offering them.6 As these technologies mature, more people will be able to get online training and be certified in a new skill set. With support from their employers, workers can also use these technologies for their continuing education.

The MOOC and OCBM demonstrate that not even the education process is exempt from automation. Before long, students whose only current choice is to enroll in a university may choose instead to enroll in a two-year college or a private company that offers such training. This could displace university faculty by depleting the flow of students seeking enrollment in college. No one is immune from automation of their jobs anymore.

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UT1 Table. Professional subdivisions of the computing field.

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