Facing a Talent Crisis
IT Industry Confronts a Perplexing Shortage of Workers
Around the turn of the millennium, when dot-com startups were riding high, computer science was an attractive career option for college students choosing majors. Ironically, however, although technology has become even more pervasive in daily life over the past 15 years, the number of people entering the IT field has plummeted, slowing growth at high-tech companies that would be expanding faster if they could only find the talent. The key, industry leaders say, is working together to reignite interest in what remains a well-paying, in-demand, often exciting field.
As a mechanical-engineering major in college, Joel Mollison didn’t expect to one day own a successful computer-services business. But then he taught himself computer repair, which — along with his growing distaste for his chosen major — led him to change direction, and eventually launch what’s now known as Northeast IT in West Springfield.
That means he’s always looking for people like him, who at some point discover a love for computers and information technology and are skilled at it. But finding those people has not been easy.
“Technology encompasses such a vast range of jobs,” he told BusinessWest. “Programmers and coders are a completely separate thing from people who do what we do, providing managed services, managing people’s networks … and that’s totally different from, say, web design.”
By all accounts, opportunities in those fields and many others in the IT realm are only growing. Yet, at the same time, the number of young people graduating from college with the necessary skills to succeed in IT is falling.
Indeed, according to Code.org, a national nonprofit dedicated to expanding participation in computer science, by 2020, the U.S. will have 1.4 million computing jobs available, but only 400,000 computer-science graduates available to fill them.
That’s a reflection of two colliding trends, the organization notes. As computers increasingly run virtually every facet of our lives, fewer college students are choosing to major in computer science. Specifically, 60% of all jobs in the broad realm of math and science have a computing element, but only 2.4% of all college students majoring in a math or science field are choosing computer science.
“We’ve absolutely been dealing with this for the last five years, and the problem will only get worse before it gets better. In general, we need a lot more folks than there are out there,” Mollison said. “There are a lot of different facets to IT, and each requires its own unique skill set, although there is some overlap. To be a professional in any of these sectors, you need to possess a vast range of knowledge.”
Dave DelVecchio, president of Innovative Business Systems in Easthampton, has experienced the same struggle.
“The pool of qualified talent is not deep enough to provide the exact mix of talent we need,” he said. “Typically, we somebody to come to the table and demonstrate they have the ability to learn — someone with good, broad-based knowledge to draw from, but also a desire and willingness to learn new things.”
Delcie Bean IV, president of Paragus Strategic IT in Hadley, understands the scope of the national problem, but also how it affects his firm, one of the country’s fastest-growing IT companies, on a daily basis.
“Being a top-paying career and the second-fastest-growing career, it’s absolutely the right career to be in, but fewer people are graduating today than 10 years ago; interest is actually shrinking,” he said. “And when we talk about where women and people of color fit in, it’s abysmal.”
He cited statistics from Code.org noting that women, who claim 57% of all bachelor’s degrees, earn just 12% of all computer-science degrees. Meanwhile, at the high-school level, 3.6 million students take the advanced-placement computer-science exam, but only 3,000 of those seats are occupied by African-American and Hispanic students.
Combined, all these numbers tell Bean there’s plenty of untapped potential to draw students of all demographics into an IT field that desperately needs them.
“Paragus, at any given time, has four to eight open positions,” he noted. “Every open position represents an opportunity lost, because every employee has ROI and generates profit. If a position isn’t filled, that’s profit we’re not capturing.”
The net effect is that a company that has been growing at 25% to 30% per year could be growing at 45% to 50% if the talent gap wasn’t an issue and Paragus could hire whenever it wanted to.
For this issue and its focus on technology, BusinessWest examines some of the reasons behind a drought of IT workers that could become critical in the next decade — and what both public- and private-sector entities are doing about it.
It’s ironic, Mollison said, that the more people rely on high-tech devices to run their lives, fewer young people are interested in computer science as a career.
“Everything runs on computers now,” he noted. “Because of that, there’s a wide array of services, a wide array of products out there. Career opportunities are growing exponentially, and there are not enough people out there with the experience to fill those gaps.”
Thinking back to his college days 15 years ago, Mollison recalled there were a lot of people entering the IT field drawn by the promise of making a lot of money in an exciting, fast-growing field. It’s a different time, though, and Millennials are known for following their passions, not necessarily just a paycheck.
“If you don’t have a true passion for IT, if you’re not exposed to it at a young age, and if the desire isn’t there to begin with, I think a lot of people may be overwhelmed by the time they reach high school and college, and are figuring out what they want to do with the rest of their lives,” he said. “The tech field can be a bit overwhelming if you’re not absolutely sure that’s where you want to be.”
With the goal of increasing exposure to computer science at an early age, Bean serves on the advisory board of the Massachusetts Computing Attainment Network, or MassCAN, which has developed a set of standards, now being considered by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, for making computer science part of the K-12 curriculum.“We really thought about what kindergartners should learn, what eighth-graders should know, what high-school graduates in the Commonwealth should be able to do in computer science,” he explained. “It’s as much a way of thinking as anything else. We’re not just talking about specific technology skills; what’s needed is critical thinking, troubleshooting, problem resolution, abstraction — traits that are of value in whatever industry you go into. If someone is an amazing critical thinker, I can teach them IT.”
The standards would likely be recommendations to start, Bean said, “but if they were to make it mandatory, it would put Massachusetts ahead of the curve in graduating some of the best talent from the K-12 system. And we’re already known for our higher-education system.”
Training young people in computer science is something Bean takes seriously, which is why he launched Tech Foundry last year. The Springfield-based nonprofit, which trains promising students to enter well-paying IT jobs right out of high school, recently graduated its first class of 24 participants.
DelVecchio sees, in the promise of Tech Foundry, echoes of Javanet back in the mid-’90s. A locally based Internet service provider, that company was later acquired by RCN, a large, regional player, which created large numbers of entry-level positions in its call center and support services, providing opportunities to work in the IT field when interest in such careers was peaking.
Then, “when RCN decided to move its call center to Pennsylvania, all those folks scattered to the wind — but many of them ended up pursuing a career in IT,” DelVecchio said. “We’ve got four people who have RCN on their résumé.”
In fact, he went on, many local IT companies were seeded with those former RCN workers, who have moved up to management-level positions. A decade or so down the road, DelVecchio hopes a vibrant IT industry in the Valley will be similarly peppered with Tech Foundry graduates. “You might not see the impact this year, but it will benefit the region 15 years from now.”
Bean certainly hopes his brainchild has such an impact, because it’s not just small computer firms that crave IT talent, but some of the region’s largest employers.
“It’s a huge problem with a national impact. Look at MassMutual. Look at Baystate. If they don’t have good tech employees, that’s a problem for them — and a problem for everyone.” Many companies, he added, have experimented with outsourced or even offshore IT services, but find that in-house talent is more efficient and produces better return on investment.
But the talent lag has everyone struggling to meet those needs.
“All we’re doing is shifting people from one company to the next,” Bean said. “There’s a lot of poaching going on — giving someone a raise to be your employee. We all have to do a little bit of that to survive, because the talent pool isn’t wide enough. But it’s not good for the region.”
When Bean and others talk about IT skills, however, they’re not thinking only about the inner workings of computer hardware and software, but also about ‘soft skills’ — in particular, communication skills — so critical to today’s IT world.
“That’s one of the really big challenges facing a lot of companies like ours,” Mollison said. “We have a lot of people who have to face the public, and you can have great technical people, but if they’re unable to communicate, if they don’t have those soft skills, they’re not as great an employee as they could be; it’s difficult to send them out into the world.”
Some of this reflects one particular type of person who embraces technology early in life, he added.
“A lot of folks are introverted and love computers — it’s a way for people to escape into another world; that’s how they get into it,” he explained. “But as they grow in that facet, and become technically mature, they can lose those soft skills, not being a part of day-to-day life.
“Personally,” he added, “I’ve seen some people who have been sheltered, not been outgoing, who have been turned around. But they need to be exposed to a group of tech people who are more outgoing, who can help break them out of their shell and be more personable, so they can work in a job where they deal with people on a regular basis.”
It doesn’t help, DelVecchio said, that too many IT graduates of the region’s highly regarded colleges and universities take their skills to the Boston area or out of state completely. This talent drain is one of the top-priority issues of the Hampshire County Regional Chamber, of which he’s a founding member.
“This region has vast assets we bring to the table,” he told BusinessWest. “We hear stories of people who moved away for job opportunities, then moved back because this is a place they want to raise a family. We need to be louder about the fact that they don’t have to move away; they can start a career, they can thrive here, and raise a family in the Pioneer Valley. That’s true not just for IT careers, but for many industries.”
Bean hopes the network of entities actively working on the IT talent problem — from state departments to regional workforce-development agencies; from community colleges to initiatives like Tech Foundry — will start to make a dent by not only cultivating young people’s interest in IT, but helping them attain both computer expertise and the soft skills necessary to work with a public that, again, is becoming ever-more reliant on technology.
“I think it’s about exposure,” he concluded. “Typically, people choose their career path based on what they’re exposed to in school — and computer science has really dropped off the radar.”
He noted that CSI: Cyber, the latest iteration of CBS’ popular criminal-forensics TV franchise, is one media entity showing an attractive and exciting side to IT work.
“I’m interested to see its impact; I think that will do more for computer science than anything else. Four years ago, there was a huge increase in students wanting to be physicists, and they traced it back to The Big Bang Theory. I think we underestimate how much exposure pop culture has to do with career paths.”
Meanwhile, his work — and that of others — to promote the computer-science industry locally continues.
“If we can get people more exposure to IT jobs, how exciting this field is, how much it pays, how fast it’s growing,” Bean said, “we can really start to move the needle.”
Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]