Is There an IT Talent Shortage?

Header Photo Credit: Lorenzo Cafaro (Creative Commons Zero License)

Kevin P. Davis asked the question "Is There an IT Talent Shortage?" on his blog this week. I started to post a response as a comment, but it kept growing, so instead I'm posting it here. If you're a software developer/manager, I highly suggest you follow Kevin's blog.

To recap the question(s):

I keep hearing that there's a huge shortage of IT workers.  That there are businesses hiring, and they can't find good people....Is it that the IT worker rate of unemployment is that much lower than the general population rate?  Or are there plenty of IT workers that simply can't find work, or are in the wrong location....That is, are there more senior people available out there than junior people, but the openings are all for junior people (or vice versa)?

Like any good macroeconomic question, there are many variables at play. Here are my thoughts on the topic:

To be clear, I think we're only talking about the US market (in as much as it's separate from the global market), and specifically, US-based companies looking to hire software developers.

First, IT unemployment rates are absolutely lower than the general population. According to one report, it's half. I think this is because companies continue to see the ROI on software development projects and customers continue to demand greater access (web, mobile, etc).  Of course, in some cases, the ROI of a software project comes from reduction of head count (or reduced need for additional head count) in other areas of the business, which just furthers the unbalanced unemployment allocations.

So demand for IT workers, especially software developers, has remained high.

Meanwhile, cheaper sources of IT workers (ie: off shoring) have shown to be less cost effective than previously thought, so my perception is that fewer dev jobs are "going oversees".  After the dotcom bust at the turn of the century, the number of students studying computer science type degrees leveled off (vs being inundated during the bubble).  This has the affect of keeping the supply of skilled workers fairly steady.

So, at a high level, we've got high demand and a limited, but not scarce, supply.

But what I've seen in the last couple years, both as a person interviewing candidates, and as a job seeker myself, is that hiring companies have changed their approach since a decade ago. With a large exception for consulting firms, I see fewer companies willing to train workers for the skills they want and instead look for candidates with existing experience in the specific technologies utilized in the job. Since the technologies available continue to grow at a high rate, and existing technologies are not going away, the likelihood of any given developer having the wanted skill(s) is shrinking. This has the result of reducing the supply of workers drastically from the larger pool. To some extent, I think some employers are setting their expectations too high.  Personally, I prefer to hire for ability to think about complex problems and less on years of Lisp/Ruby/PHP/TCL/Cobal/Bash/Scala/Objective-C/FoxPro experience.

At the same time, salaries have generally stagnated for the last few years, and experienced developers have, in my opinion, become more selective about the work environments they are willing to consider (telecommuting, flex hours, commutes, etc, etc).

So for any given job listing, the number of people in the worker pool who have the skills sought, would be willing to work for the hiring company, and are willing to leave their current employer or are unemployed, is shrinking.

Supply vs demand.

My expectation is that within the next three years, as the economy recovers, there will be a disproportional increase in salary levels for experienced developers, and that more companies will be willing to hire more junior and mismatched skill workers to train on the job. This will pull more people into tech jobs, thus increasing the supply and reducing demand, but over the course of a decade or so. This cyclical affect will continue for the foreseeable future.

I also see companies less willing to hire full-time developers, so consulting firms are able to draw in a lot of good talent (further reducing the pool for everyone else) and they are more willing to train new graduates and mismatched skill developers. Along those same lines, I've seen several of my experienced developer peers move out of staff jobs and take independent contractor roles, where they can better dictate the work environments, hours, salaries, etc. and/or more directly reap the rewards of their efforts. I suspect these are both temporary trends until the economy pick back up and companies are more willing to provide those things directly.

Lastly, I think geography plays a shrinking, but noticeable, role. Chicago has a hot tech job market right now. Looks like Austin does too. Omaha, not so much. But I've seen more companies willing to hire remote tech workers over that last decade, and the industry is trending in that direction, so I see this as becoming less of a barrier. As an employer, if you really need that skillset, you'll hire the guy/girl in the next state; With modern Internet, Skype, IM, etc, they'll be just as productive as if you stuck them in the back cube.