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The Growing IT Gap

While the need for computer and IT jobs in the United States has increased over the past decade, the number of degrees completed in those fields has dipped lower than levels reported in the early 2000s, new research shows. What gives?      

Wednesday, August 7, 2013
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While other degrees, such as those in the health field and engineering, have far outpaced job demand, the number of computer and IT graduates fell 11 percent in the United States between 2003 and 2012, according to a new CareerBuilder study. Over the same time period, computer and IT jobs grew 13 percent nationally, the research shows.

The figures can be linked to both the nature of the IT field and the economy, says Rosemary Haefner, CareerBuilder's human resources vice president in Chicago.

"After the dot-com bubble collapse and recession in 2001, many students were deterred from computer fields and instead opted for business or health programs, which were both areas that saw high growth over the same timeframe," she says. "Secondly, it’s often difficult for college curriculums to keep up with rapidly evolving technology and programming tools needed for jobs in the digital age. As a result, we see a lot of tech professionals who are self-taught or decide to take shorter, skills-intensive certification programs as opposed to a four-year degree." 

The study, compiled through CareerBuilder's employment data and economic analysis company, Economic Modeling Specialists International, pulls information from more than 90 national and state employment resources. Higher education completion data for the study includes associate’s degrees and above from the National Center for Education Statistics.

Negative perceptions of the field also may be influencing the trend to pursue other types of degrees, says Elaine Loo, New York-based Deloitte Consulting's human capital practice senior manager.

"I think the common theme is that, with the whole dot-com bubble, the whole talent industry related to computer science and technology has lost its luster a little bit," she says.

Misconceptions about foreign workers filling IT jobs can further discourage college students from pursuing related degrees, she says.

"There can be a perception that a lot of IT jobs are commoditized, whether people are assuming they are being filled offshore or simply that people may see it as a less lucrative role."

The challenge to HR is to better sell IT and computer positions as worthwhile careers both through building relationships with universities and in recruiting practices, Loo says.

"It's a branding thing," she says. "HR has to show the growing need and show this idea of the blend between IT and business. The fact is that these technology roles are critical to the business. We need to be reshaping them as business roles, not just IT roles. It's a way of making the job seem like you won't be locked into a single role, that it's one where employees can make an impact on the business."

For hiring managers deciding among candidates with varying levels of formal education, Loo says they need to first break down requirements for each position and then watch for candidates who display learning agility and process orientation.

"My first piece of advice is to break down the roles, really understand what that role is asking for. Some, such as analysts, project management, technical analysts, have a bigger business component. That opens the potential for you being able to hire outside of traditional degrees."

Ideal candidates are those who can showcase experience, with or without a degree, says Jerry Irvine, CIO of Prescient Solutions, a Chicago-based IT outsourcing company.

"Ultimately, the candidate’s ability to demonstrate applied IT knowledge and skills in the work environment is the best predictor of future job success, and it is less important if the skills were developed through a formalized degree or hands-on work experience."

That doesn't mean there is no longer value to IT or computer-related degrees, he says.

"An accredited degree, coupled with the industry-leading certifications, provides the most comprehensive picture of a qualified candidate. It tells us that they are dedicated to their education, aware of the nature of our industry and are committed to constant improvement."

Even companies that revolve around the IT and computer scene are thinking outside the confines of formal education, says Carla Patalano, author and program chair for the Certificate of Advanced Graduate Study in Human Resource Management at New England College of Business and Finance in Boston.

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"Think about the approach that Apple stores use with their 'geniuses,' " she says. "They look for candidates with just a baseline of technical knowledge, so they can be easily trained and acculturated, with the focus on finding people with soft skills that can interact well with end users. So it is important to look at what the future holds for the position before making a decision on what kind of candidate is going to be appropriate."

Patalano -- who collaborated with Richard Huebner, an information-systems manager and professor in the college's MBA program, to discuss the study -- says employers may need to reconsider their recruiting practices.

“First, know your audience," she says. "Where they go, what they are interested in, what they are talking about."

IT/IS teams, she says, are often comprised of workers who are motivated by the types of challenges in their day-to-day work, and they enjoy solving a variety of problems and creating solutions that help people.

"If you aren’t familiar with sites like Slashdot.org [a technology-related news website], then you are missing an opportunity to get the inside scoop on what IT/IS candidates want."

Encouraging current IT employees to help scout for better talent can help, and companies also may want to consider partnering with vendors or consultants, she says.

"This is a good short-term solution that can serve as a stop-gap while you search for candidates and can lead to a longer-term solution," she says. "As part of this process, HR should work with the IT/IS organization to evaluate whether or not there really is a need to hire someone, or [if] there [is] a way to externally fill this need.

"This kind of strategic HR thinking," she says, "can add real value to the organization’s bottom line.”

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