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Shortage of IT skills predicted to remain

by Steve Alexander


(IDG) -- The history of the IT labor shortage shows that the IT labor market is unpredictable. Still, many market observers feel safe making the prediction that even the end of year-2000 work and efforts to alleviate the shortage by recruiting from nontraditional sources are unlikely to alleviate the current shortage in the near future.

"Growth in Internet-based computing, supply-chain integration, and knowledge management applications will put pressure on demand for IT services, and therefore on demand for IT personnel, well beyond Y2K and the euro conversion," says Ron Shevlin, a senior analyst at Forrester Research, in Cambridge, Mass.

In a 1998 Forrester survey, 85 percent of CIOs said hiring IT people is difficult now and is expected to become more difficult.

"There will be a momentary slowdown as Y2K people come off projects. But then there will be a resurgence in demand," predicts Norman Imamshah, director for computing and telecommunications services at Central Washington University, in Ellensburg, Wash.

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However, for many businesses, it's not clear how crippling the lack of workers will be.

"I really don't see any firms going out of business or visibly suffering because of this IT shortage," Shevlin says. The reason: Not all IT projects are critical to a business; some are just nice things to have. "The `nice-to-have' things might not get done, but that is not going to put anybody out of business."

The long-term prognosis for the IT labor market is harder to predict.

"I estimate it will take five to 15 years for the IT labor supply in this country to adjust," says Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America, in Arlington, Va. "As other countries catch up to our level of IT, we will constantly be facing the same staffing challenges."

"I think it will be an evolutionary change lasting until after 2005, which means after the remaining Y2K work is over," says Howard Rubin, a senior consultant at the Cutter Consortium, a New York-based IT research company, and chairman of the computer science department at Hunter College, in New York. "As software packages get better and more tailorable by business people, the business people will become the technology people -- and that will turn things around."

As long as the IT shortage persists, Miller predicts, salaries will continue to rise. "I don't see what's going to change it except getting more workers," Miller says. That may disappoint many corporate executives who are trying to hold the line against constantly rising IT salaries.

"It's not that companies can't pay those higher salaries, but that they have chosen not to," says Nate Viall, a computer industry market researcher at Nate Viall and Associates, in Des Moines, Iowa. "Those companies will have to do an attitude adjustment."

Part of the long-term solution to the U.S. labor shortage will be seeking IT staff from nontraditional sources, Miller says. In addition to four-year universities, companies will do more hiring among students from community colleges and third-party IT education companies, and will do more in-house training as well as retraining people who are changing careers to enter IT.

"We're in a changing situation where companies will realize they need to accept people who don't have a 4.0 in computer science from MIT," Miller says.

Steve Alexander is a free-lance writer in Edina, Minn.

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