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6 Ways to Address the IT Labor Shortage

Education and government insiders share their thoughts on how to fill the IT labor gap.

An IT labor shortage causes educators and government employers to reflect on how to bridge the gap.

IT jobs are growing at a much faster rate than the number of employees who are trained to fill them. Fewer people are graduating with science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) degrees. And many current IT employees are set to retire soon.

This situation has led to a shortage of skilled IT workers in 18 states and Washington, D.C., according to an America's Tech Talent Crunch report from Dice, a career site for technology and engineering professionals. States with the highest shortages are New Jersey, Texas, New York, Massachusetts and California -- and in California, many software engineers receive five to 10 job offers a day on LinkedIn.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects 22 to 32 percent growth through 2020 in jobs for software developers, database administrators and network and computer system administrators. In comparison, computer science bachelor's degrees awarded from 2000 to 2009 grew just 2.6 percent overall, according to the National Science Foundation, with sharp increases and decreases during that time period, which balanced the number out.

In Massachusetts, 40 percent of the government's 1,600-person workforce will retire in the next five to 10 years, said John Letchford, CIO of the state. The talent pipeline is drying up, particularly in systems administration jobs. And as employers fight for skilled workers, the government can't compete with the private sector when it comes to salaries. 

"Whether we like it or not, we're going to have a smaller IT workforce," Letchford said, "and we see that today. We're struggling to hire people in specific jobs."

Both educators and employers are looking for answers to deal with this problem. And they shared six ideas for addressing the IT labor shortage.

1. Help students develop an interest in computer science at an earlier age.

The issue starts with what we encourage young children to explore and develop an interest in, said Ray Bareiss, director of The Software Institute at Touro College. We could do more at an early age to spark their interest in computer science and other related fields. 

2.  Eliminate barriers for entry into STEM fields. 

Many student populations don't think they can make it in a STEM field. That's because colleges pack their curriculum with advanced math and science courses more out of tradition than anything else, Bareiss said. But that's a mistake. 

He earned a Ph.D. in computer science, worked in three start-up companies and acted as a professor in elite universities including Northwestern.

But he didn't use anything more than simple arithmetic.

"We all like to believe that we work in this ultra-high-tech business where we work on the bleeding edge of technology, maybe even at the forefront of human knowledge," Bareiss said. "And the reality is that that's not what nearly anyone in the industry does. What we all do is we work in a people business that uses technology, and we often use technology very conservatively because as you get into things that haven't been done before, there's very high risk, there's a very high failure rate." 

People need to reach out to students who are leery of STEM fields and tell them they can do it.

3. Match education with what the real world expects of employees.

The educational process should produce people who can succeed in the workplace. But that doesn't always happen.

"When we get people into the technical career pipeline, education has to better match what the real world expects," Bareiss said.

His college is trying to do that by creating a simulation of the workplace. Students work in teams on realistic projects, produce deliverables and are evaluated. The only difference between the learning environment and the professional workplace is that faculty members coach students.

4. Provide education scholarships in exchange for public service.

On the employer side, state government could provide scholarships to students in exchange for public service for a year or two, Letchford said. It's worked with the military and other areas, so it might be worth a shot in education.

5. Recruit younger employees.

States are going to have to figure out how to encourage the Millennial generation to work in public service. Out of a staff of 1,600 in Massachusetts' government, 32 are under the age of 30. That represents just two percent of the workforce. 

"We have not been successful in driving recruitment at the entry level," Letchford said, "and that's clearly going to be a problem as 40 percent of the workforce retires."

6. Create a plan to close the gap between higher education and the work force.

A STEM council in Massachusetts is looking at what changes need to happen in education to address this shortage. The governor, lieutenant governor, Letchford, his human resources director and employers are working together to find a solution.

They're figuring out where they are today, what they need five years from now and the gap between the two. Then they'll work with higher education and product companies to figure out what skills are missing.

Letchford is trying to help the council look at trends, changes they'll have to manage over the next five years, and roles that should go away or be filled. They'll also consider the likely adoption of cloud services, which need to be managed by service managers, and the impact that consumerization of mobile and social technology will likely have.

"There are a lot of roles that are changing," Letchford said. "Now the goal's still the same: We've got to enable success of government, and deliver services and ultimately even transform that relationship with constituents. But it's important to lay out a plan that really kind of addresses some of those changes."

This story was originally published at the Center for Digital Education

Image courtesy of Shutterstock