The IT rust belt

Of all the requests for advice I receive, the hardest come either from college graduates and career changers wanting to know how to break into IT or from older programmers who want to write code until they retire but can’t even get an interview. They’ve been sold on the idea that proficiency with computers practically guarantees employment. Now, nobody wants ’em.

I’d love to offer hope and great advice. Regrettably, the best advice I have is this: find a different field of endeavour. Unless you’re in the top rank, there’s little future for you in IT.

The supply of programmers exceeds demand and that drives down prices – your wages. That’s because the genie of globalization is out of the bottle, and it’s going to stay out of the bottle at least until the Internet closes shop.

Twenty years ago, the same thing happened to factory jobs. U.S. factory workers were unionized, which simply meant that instead of keeping jobs and accepting lower wages, their jobs went away altogether as the factories relocated to the Philippines, Malaysia, and Taiwan. Now it’s our turn: Asian programmers work as hard as or harder than their North American counterparts, and for lower wages.

It’s easy to blame greedy CEOs for this mess, but employers aren’t just being greedy when they shift these jobs to foreign workers. If they don’t and their competitors do, they have to charge more for the same products and services. Not exactly a formula for success. And when business shifts to the competitors, the jobs do too – overseas.

Nor would changing the U.S. H-1B program (which helps companies bring over specialty workers on a temporary basis) – or even eliminating it altogether – help. Whether foreign programmers come here or programming jobs go there, the result is the same except for which country collects the income tax. Foreign programmers produce code just as good as that coded by North American programmers. For less. Are you willing to compete?

Is this a good thing? Not for the average North American, I imagine, although it will help keep prices down when we’re shopping.

Not every IT job will move overseas, of course. Much of management will remain, as will jobs where proximity, linguistic ability and cultural familiarity are important, such as network administration, systems analysis, user-interface design, help desk, and project management. Nor will all programming jobs move overseas, of course. Plenty of U.S. factories remain open, too. But the trend is clear, and it means an increasing number of North American programmers will be competing for a decreasing number of jobs.

So if you still want a programming career, here’s the best advice I have: expect to work harder for less.

Are you more optimistic? Send Lewis an e-mail at Lewis, who writes for InfoWorld (U.S.), heads IS Survivor Training (, organizer of “Leading High-Performance IT.”