How I Went In Search Of The IT Gap

 

OK, we all know the story, or at least those of us trying to hire people with IT skills do – there’s not enough people out there to hire! We can’t find anyone. Dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria, and those empty desks that should be filled with busy geeks.

If you haven’t heard this complaint you’re A) lucky, B) ignorant, C) a liar, or D) better at hiring than a lot of people – a whole lot of people.

For over a year I’ve been hearing that there’s some kind of IT hiring gap. This isn’t new of course, complaint about some kind of “skills gap” goes back for years in many fields.  I think I’ve been hearing about this for about four years, even when unemployment was higher.

However among these claims I’d occasionally hear a dissenting voice. That there’s not a gap, or that these claims were ways to get in cheap H1B visa employees, or someone had no trouble in hiring and just thought this was BS.  It made me wonder if this is for real.

Let’s face it, it’s important to know what the heck is actually going on in IT.  IT is vital to the economy.  It’s  close to we geeks who are so tied to technology industries and areas. Some of us want a damn job and we’d like to know what’s going ob.  Some of us are trying to hire people and want to know why it isn’t working.  If this gap is BS then people claiming there is one are ignorant, deceptive, or both and we’ like to know.

So is there an IT Gap, where we don’t have enough people to do the IT jobs of today?

What This Is

OK this isn’t a scientific paper. The core thesis of this is “A reasonably intelligent guy who works in technology tries to find the answers on the internet.” Yes, I have a scientific background (psychology), no this isn’t science. Considering how the data is broken up and hard to find, it’s more extrapolation along with a scavenger hunt.

But I decided to find out if there’s evidence of a skill gap or not in IT. So welcome to the ride. Strap in, there will be numbers.

The ride in fact is part of the reason i wrote this. I wanted to share my experiences of trying to answer this question with people. What kind of work does it take for someone to try and get these answers to something I kind of think would be easy?

More than I expected is the answer. So let’s take a trip together.

First up, let’s go by the numbers.

Jobs By The Numbers

OK, So how many jobs are there in IT right now? Well that depends what we call “IT jobs” anyway. Here’s the first issue – just what counts as an “IT job?.”

Fortunately the BLS came to the rescue with a bit of research in the unimaginatively named but helpful “Careers in the growing field of information technology services.” Information Technology services is seems to be what we talk about when we talk bout IT hardcore – serious IT companies. It’s a good start, and everyone uses BLS data in their research anyway.

Now this article just talks about the actual IT industry, all the stuff we think of with Silicon Valley would-be-Silicon Valleys, which is only a subset of IT jobs – but at the end it calls out jobs that are dominant in these “Actual IT Companies”. These jobs were Computer System Analysts, Computer Programmers, Software Developers (applications) and Software developers (Systems), and Computer Support specialists. A good place to start.

Not exactly the vast sweep of jobs we associated with IT – but when you check the BLS job profiles and related professions, it gave me a pretty good list of professions, with data that seem to constitute “most of the iT jobs where people do technology stuff or manage it:” I was able to compile this list of jobs that are “seriously IT.”

A few caveats:

  • I left out serious science-heavy professions requiring graduate work and hands-on electrical engineering as those are highly specialized and debatably IT (I don’t know if being a chip designer counts, and I think it’s a bit outside this discussion). And yes, that’s a judgement call.
  • I was a bit resultant to include Support Specialists due to the fact they often fall out of the sphere of IT to me be consumer support but kept them because, hey, close enough.
  • I also was reluctant to include CIS Managers (despite being one) as those can be entered many ways, but I’ve also seen people do CIS management early in careers (at least informally).
  • I am not always sure I trust the designation “Web Developer” as it seems to blend too easily into programming jobs, but I couldn’t leave it out.

So what are the amount of people doing these jobs and how have they grown? What are their more recent numbers in 2013 (since 2014 isn’t done yet)?

Going by the numbers from the BLS, we’ve got 3,865,700 jobs in 2012 averaging 1.67% growth per year – but the percentage of job growth varies wildly, from less than a percent to over 3% a year. If we leave out the I’m-not-sure-to-include IT jobs in support, that’s still 3,143,300 jobs at about 1.69% growth a year

So we can guess that between 2012 and 2013, that:

  • 64540 jobs were added, about 1.67% growth
  • If we leave out support, that’s 52982 jobs, at 1.69% growth.
  • Those 52982 jobs definitely need a BS or more.

A pretty hefty sum. But how many are entry level and how many aren’t? That’s important because there’s a wide difference since that reflects a range of skillets and abilities. Let’s get to Entry Level first, because that in turn is relevant to asking “are we training enough people in our colleges.”

Entry Level Or Not?

I ran into a problem here as I couldn’t find data on IT jobs and what was entry level. How many jobs are for n00bs – professionally speaking, of course? I couldn’t find squat.

I did find this report on STEM positions by career tool/service/research company Burning Glass.

It notes 41% of stem jobs are entry-level (less than 2 years experience). So as I figure STEM is close to IT in its need for junior/senior talent, there we go.

OK, yes I’m guessing

So let’s look at those job numbers I have assuming I’m close enough as I can’t find any more specific data.

  • Counting Computer Support specialists, we can assume 26,461 entry-level IT jobs were created in 2013.
  • Not counting Computer Support specialists, we can assume 21,722 entry-level IT jobs were created in 2013.

And by the way, if these STEM numbers reflect reality, it means that IT is creating more senior level jobs than entry level jobs. We’ll return to that later.

Filling Entry Level Jobs – Off To Campus!

So how do we find out how many people are graduating that can fill these positions? At first all I could find was the Talubee 2013 survey, but it’s based on returned reports – very unreliable. In turn, do people even need CS degrees to fill the above positions?

Looking for this was difficult, until . . .

Fortunately in a giant fit of irony, I found a report from a nonpartisan economic group EPI on STEM Labor shortages, focusing on IT – though I doubt in turn any group is nonpartisan, and this one admits openly and honestly they focus on economic need issues, though if you want to consider that partisan that may be inappropriate. In turn this report was written to refute a report from Microsoft calling for more Visas for foreign IT folks as Microsoft was claiming there would be a huge skill gap.

Yeah, sounds familiar, and I’m thinking that Microsoft report may have stared some rumors we’re still repeating even here – that there’s an IT Skills gap.

Lesson? I had to look at other people’s papers and writing to find the research I couldn’t find easily.

Now the Microsoft paper pointed me at the National Science Foundation and the NSES data . There’s even a page to run your own reports – https://ncsesdata.nsf.gov/webcaspar/ and the “NCES Degrees Awarded by Degree Level And Field” report tells me what I need.

Yes this thing is awesome, so use it.

So we have an idea that :

  • We can estimate that 64540 IT jobs were created in 2013, 52982 requiring a college degree (again, leaving out support)
  • We can assume 26,461 jobs created in 2013 in IT are entry-level based on assuming the percentage of entry-level jobs created mirror those in STEM.
  • We can assume 21722 jobs created that were entry level and aren’t support and thus need an degree – if this mirrors STEM.

How many Computer Science Graduates were there in 2013?

  • 21 PhDs
  • 22,833 Masters Degrees.
  • 51,586 BS degrees.
  • 38,897 Associates Degrees.

So let’s put it bluntly, this is a ton of people graduating each year who can do IT jobs. Thats enough people with BS Degrees to fill the estimated entry level positions and then some and nearly enough to fill all openings requiring a college degree. That’s not counting the Associate Degrees (which could fill the support positions I keep waffling on, as well as some Web master jobs), or the folks with Masters Degrees, who can probably drink your economic milkshake job-wise if you’ve got a BS.

So an entry level gap? We graduated enough people in 2013 to fill all IT positions created, as long as “has some kind of CS degree” is the only qualification. That doesn’t sound like an IT gap on the entry level.

But there’s more . . .

Is A CS Degree What People Need?

Frankly, we all know plenty of people who don’t have CIS degrees in computing. I’m one. I know others. Many aren’t entry-level, but still.

In fact the idea you can take coding as a trade has been around for awhile- this article points it out. As a person who got a computer career with a psychology degree, as a person in IT where we often talk about our weird backgrounds, I believe it. The IT field is filled with people who have a how-they-didn’t-get-a-CS-degree-but-are-in-IT stories – I know I hear a lot of them.

But what are the stats on this? Well this is where the EPI paper mentioned earlier comes to the rescue. They dug up some data from 2003 on how many people have Science & Engineering degrees, CS degrees, and the amount of people who’s highest degree is computer science. The majority of all people studied in 2003 had an S&E degree, from 51-85%, but 17-43% had CS degrees. On average, 69% of people had S&E degrees in the IT field, 32% had at least on CS degree – and for only 30% of the people studied had the CS degree as their highest degree.

So in short, A majority of people had a science and engineering degree, but a majority of people in the 2003 data did not have a CS degree. Assuming the trend has held since then, that means an even larger amount of people that are qualified to have an IT job (of any level).

(By the way I think this report might be the source of the story that “1/4 to 1/2 of people in IT jobs have a CS degree” I’ve seen people make. Another useful part of this research is finding where ideas get started.).

Now consider how people can get trained as a programmer, or learn it as a hobby, or on the side, or pick it up as part of another degree. Consider how many people do IT jobs without having the CS degree.

I think we can throw out any idea that there’s any kind of gap for people on the Entry level in IT, barring specific skill needs. There’s enough CS majors, and that doesn’t seem to exactly matter to people’s careers, unless things have changed radically between 2003.

But this is Entry Level. So now . . .

What About Senior IT Positions?

Here’s where it gets kind of weird. Well, weirder.

I don’t encounter much claim of having trouble getting good entry level people, but it’s something I wanted to cover to make sure we had some perspective. Also admittedly I think it puts lie to the claim we can’t fill at least lower-level IT positions if anyone makes it – we bloody well can.

But for Senior positions? That’s where there seems to be more trouble.

First of all, as noted, if IT positions reflect openings in STEM, then we’re getting more senior level positions created than entry level positions, which as you can imagine is going to produce a talent crunch because not enough people are starting out to eventually move up to being senior. Again, if the STEM numbers fit, which I repeat for that very reason.

Now some senior positions can be filled by people with no CS or even IT background in the case of a few management positions. Most of my experience with that has been a rarity and I wasn’t able to find any numbers on people of senior level going into IT.

So if these numbers hold . . . yeah we should expect to see a gap over time in people suited to be senior level IT.

Actually I’d expect other factors to come into play, and want to bring those up – since they often come up in claims about “an IT gap”

ATTRITION:

People leave industries. There’s some turnover in IT I’m sure (I’ve seen it), but I couldn’t find much data on it. Most people I encounter are lifers (though I live in Silicon Valley), but there’s often a blurry line among careers – if you’re an IT person that becomes an analyst that in theory isn’t an IT position but work in IT . . . you get the idea. Attrition is hard to manage as you may not really leave an industry – becoming a consultant or an instructor doesn’t count, for instance.

DEATH:

Taking a look at this CDC report on page 3 makes the pretty depressing example that basically, a lot of us die as we get older. That may sound like it doesn’t matter, but remember Senior means older, and older means more likely to die. As a guy of age 46, working with some people in their 50’s, you start hearing about who’s friends died. On at least very senior levels, this is probably a factor to keep in mind. However based on the CDC data death doesn’t seem to really ramp up until the 50’s, so it probably isn’t that huge an effect.

EDUCATION GAP:

This is one of the more interesting elements – the Computing Research Association pointed out there was a serious decline in CS majors from 2002 to 2007 in their respondents, which then began to recover. But what do the numbers show? Well it’s back to the NSF, and graduation rates in 2007 were:

  • Masters: 16314
  • BS: 42596
  • Associates: 27680

This isn’t half of what we have now. In fact the NSF numbers for 2002 have even more BS graduates. So I’m thinking the Talubee report may have been the source of some panic years back that we were having less CS degrees. Since it’s based on self-response, I question it.

So what stands out here is that we have a gap in job creation, some unsure effects of attrition and mortality, and that’s about it. Except for the fact we’re creating more senior jobs than entry level – well assuming it- I can’t find much data to say “people are leaving in droves” or “people are dying.”

All I have to think there may be a gap right now is the assumption that job creation in IT mirrors that STEM data. So if there’s a gap in talent that my research can’t account for, we’d expect to see it in extremely low unemployment, higher wages.

The paper that pointed out the large amounts of IT people with no IT degree notes that we just don’t see the evidence. Though this is done to counter claims by Microsoft, the data makes some good points:

  • Unemployment for people in Computer fields by 2011 were actually higher than the baseline expected unemployment. That’s probably changed since the data was assembled, but is worth noting (Figure B) – I couldn’t find more recent
  • Unemployment for people in Computer fields is lower than the general unemployment, which may give the illusion of a lack of people – just because there’s less unemployed people in IT compared to the average, it doesn’t mean that reemployment rate is low for the field. “Full employment” for IT is around 2% unemployment.
  • Wages haven’t risen impressively over the years (Figure D) at least for folks with a BS or higher. The numbers end in 2011 in this report, but there’s not much difference in the latest BLS data I could find.

The above factors I’d mentioned could be an influence, but we’re certainly not seeing much wage pressure, and at least earlier in this decade unemployment was both notably high, and its ups and downs tracked to the general economy. With the current unemployment rate of 5.8% we can assume a pretty low rate of unemployment in IT, and judging by the report that’d be about 2% – which is close to full employment according to the EPI paper. I couldn’t find recent data on the current unemployment rates of people in IT jobs.

We can also go back to the BLS to see the monthly unemployment rates over time. It’s been dropping for awhile since the bad days of 2009-2010. So anyone a few years ago complaining about an IT gap . . . I don’t see it as that credible.

(Note I’m not worrying about entry-level jobs here, as the aforementioned overload of people makes me assume that people can find whatever they need for entry level jobs)

So my admittedly rough conclusions? If there’s a gap, it is comparatively recent (the last year or less) and/or created by other factors.  We’ve really only reached the point where we’d expect the market to tighten up – but the wages being paid don’t seem to reflect that the gap is serious enough to drive up wages if it exists.

If I had more data on senior versus entry level and so on, I might be able to extrapolate a bit more.

Where Are We Now?

So he’s what I found.

  • Researching this stuff is a royal pain. This paper took about 6 hours of work (counting formatting) – for me to get to half the conclusions I wanted.
  • There’s no reason I can see for there to be a problem hiring entry level people in technology due to sheer number. If anything we might want to worry we’re over-graduating people in IT.
  • If hiring patterns in IT are like those in STEM, there are more senior positions being created than junior positions. This and some evidence that unemployment for IT folks is getting towards the low end mean there may be a gap.
  • Because of previous high unemployment going back years, if there is an IT gap, it’s probably relatively recent – so some of the past complaining may have been do to other factors. As noted I’ve been hearing these complaint for awhile so I lean to that conclusion.

Working on this was challenging and informative. Finding the numbers is hard, checking them, working on them, all takes effort. There’s extrapolation in some cases, and doubtlessly missing something. And again I’m a professional who’s done science.

Now if you’re not someone used to doing this at all? It’s going to be freaking hard. If people are parroting “there’s a skills gap” when there is none, and I say “do the research” I just realized I’m telling them to blow a lot of time doing this. Not everyone is going to, they’re just going to read a paper or a news article.

But, that’s what I’m here for.

And next time, let’s take a look at other factors beyond people with appropriate skillsets and degrees that might affect hiring and create – or produce the experience of – an IT gap.  Maybe these numbers don’t tell the whole story . . .

– Steven Savage

Steven Savage is a Geek 2.0 writer, speaker, blogger, and job coach.  He blogs on careers at http://www.musehack.com/, publishes books on career and culture at http://www.informotron.com/, and does a site of creative tools at http://www.seventhsanctum.com/. He can be reached at http://www.stevensavage.com/.