Education the tip of the iceberg

I was very interested in Tom Keenan’s article “IT isn’t the choice of many students” in the July 27 issue of ComputerWorld (page 11). As I have many years experience in the information technology industry and am approaching retirement (in a few short years), I thought I would pass on my observations regarding causes for the decline of IT career interest.

There are four major considerations one must evaluate when choosing potential careers: job interest, remuneration, skills obsolescence and job security. Other considerations such as employer reputation and location also affect the choice, but those generally come into play once the actual career direction has been chosen. How the four factors are weighted in the career choice is very much a question of individual bias, but all have some impact.

When I started in IT, just about everything was new. This gave the participants a sense of pioneering, an incentive to continue exploring, along with a feeling of great accomplishment when applications were successfully implemented. Now, the industry is more mature and most of the work (probably 80 to 90 per cent of it) consists of repair and enhancement (called maintenance). Today, individuals have a great variety of extremely interesting career choices and many people want real world work relevant to society’s aims and objectives.

While I still find information technology work intellectually stimulating and challenging, there are a large number of people who find the concept of sitting at a terminal all day “twiddling” the inside of a computer abhorrent. They have neither the inclination nor the aptitude for the work and would rather work with other people in the real world. Information technology probably holds no interest for the large portion of the population who are people-oriented rather than thing-oriented.

Since one likes to provide adequate food and shelter for one’s family, remuneration is a definite factor that impacts career choices. When I began my career, information technology paid well above average when compared to other careers requiring the same education and experience. Today: police, fire-fighters, teachers, nurses, bus drivers and auto assembly workers can earn as much as, or more than, programmers with the same number of years of experience. Often, they have jobs that are far more interesting and relevant. Programming is very much an art and craft. So is work in the skilled trades. However, skilled tradespeople usually earn substantially greater incomes.

Most occupations require practitioners to keep up-to-date. Unfortunately, information technology change is accelerating at a rate significantly greater than other occupations. Typically, this means a practitioner can expect to become totally obsolete in four to five years if skills are not upgraded. This can provoke “learning burnout”. I know a number of people who lasted six to eight years and then moved to other occupations to get away from the stress of the continually accelerating learning requirements. While there are lots of organizations that provide skills training for their people, there are lots of others who take a view of training as an aid to finding employment with competitors. Thus, they provide no company-sponsored training, increasing the obsolescence, “learning burnout”, and leaving factors significantly.

As I remarked previously, the information technology industry is reaching a mature state. This is not to say it isn’t still growing. However, for the years from the 1950s through the 1980s information technology was relatively inflation proof. This happened because computers were mostly utilized to gain cost savings. When the economy entered a downturn, the need for cost savings increased and computer sales (along with manpower requirements) increased. However, during the past decade, application to cost savings has diminished and other directions (product sales, enhanced product functions, market share, etc.) have become more prominent. Currently, the IT industry looks a lot like the aerospace industry and we are seeing similar “hiring and firing” cycles. Of course, corporate mergers have aggravated this phenomenon. Candidates for IT careers will naturally have a greater concern for job security than they had in the past and may decide they want more stable employment elsewhere.

While improvements to educational systems and career marketing can help reduce some of the skill shortages, the problems that I have identified need to be addressed if we to solve the ever-increasing information technology workforce supply/demand gap.

Gary Rogers