Anyone have any extra programmers?

In Germany, politicians are fighting over whether to allow tens of thousands of foreign programmers into the country in the face of a shortfall of IT professionals. Left-wing trade unions and right-wing anti-immigration politicians are lobbying against letting in the foreign IT workers, most of whom would probably come from India.

That sounds a lot like our current debate about increasing the number of temporary visas for high-tech workers, doesn’t it? But get this: In Germany, people are complaining that their IT labour gap exists in part because so many German IT professionals have been hired away to work in the U.S.

Yes, the IT labour shortage is now officially a worldwide problem – and the U.S. is now officially a major cause.

It isn’t just Germany. Ireland, France, England, Japan and Canada are all short of IT workers. Their schools aren’t cranking out enough technologists for IT shops and e-commerce start-ups, any more than the U.S.’ are. The few places with more IT people than they need – such as India and Russia – can’t come close to making up the difference.

The Information Technology Association of America says about 800,000 of the new IT jobs created in the U.S. this year will have no one to fill them. Meta Group Inc. says we’ll be 600,000 short. And International Data Corp. says Europe will have 1.3 million more IT jobs than qualified workers this year.

The message is clear. We always knew importing programmers was a short-term solution to our IT labor shortage. We just didn’t realize how short-term it was. Now it’s everybody’s IT gap. And we’re all in trouble.

The obvious long-term solution – getting more kids to grow up to become IT people – won’t happen fast enough. Waiting for industry groups and politicians and the schools to fix the problem won’t do it.

We’ve got to start taking action ourselves.

For one thing, we’ve got to stop hemorrhaging employees. With typical IT shop turnover hovering around 20 per cent, as much as one-third of our personnel costs go to recruiting replacements for the ones who quit. We aren’t losing just experience and opportunities, we’re burning money we could be spending on improving skills or creating better perks – or just paying our people more for what they do.

We’ve also got to get serious about training. Hiring people with specialized skills off the street is grotesquely expensive, and we’ll lose them as soon as a better offer comes along. We’ve got to reward employees who take the initiative and upgrade their own skills – and get solidly behind training everyone in the shop, even if it means we risk losing employees once they’re better trained.

And we’ve got to cut the human resources department out of the hiring loop. We’re dying for good people, and too many candidates can’t make it past human resource departments’ literal-minded ideas about qualifications.

We’ve also got to look harder, casting a wider net for the right people. We’ve got to get real about older IT workers, programmers who don’t have computer science degrees (remember, Bill Gates doesn’t either) and people who want to move into IT from other parts of the business. Some of those people won’t fit – but some will fit fine, and we should be making room for them.

We’ve got to move, and move fast. Because from here on in, we can’t just grab IT people from Germany or India or anywhere else. They’re all grabbing, too – and it may be all we can do to hold on to who we’ve got.

Hayes, a Computerworld (U.S.) staff columnist, has covered IT for more than 20 years. His e-mail address is [email protected].

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