Career watch: Misleading government stats on IT employment

Q&A: David Foote

The CEO of IT workforce analyst firm Foote Partners says the IT workforce is larger than most of us realize.

You maintain that government statistics on IT employment are misleading. Could you explain? Well, statistics and misleading are two words that frequently appear together, and federal employment reports raising suspicions is nothing new, especially at the start and end of recessions. But the problem with IT employment statistics is more black-and-white.

It begins with the Labor Department's Standard Occupational Classification system, which was updated in 2010 but still defines IT much the same as back in the old pure-technology MIS departments -- administrators, engineers, programmers, developers, analysts, user support and various infrastructure specialists. All federal employment reports map to the SOC's ancient IT model, which means only a small portion of the modern IT professional workforce is actually identified and tracked in these reports -- barely 20 per cent, to be precise, and that's if you include tech consulting and temporary staffing jobs.

So the government doesn't see someone who oversees online security and social media development and reports to a business unit as an IT worker. Right. Nor does it properly identify and track 16 million other people in the U.S. who bring various blends of technology skills, subject matter expertise and business savvy to their jobs in corporate functions, departments, product groups, business lines and other areas. These are IT professionals in 2011. Let's face it: IT jobs and skills have been migrating outside the walls of the traditional IT department for years, from administrative to executive levels. Marketing specialists, sales engineers, business analysts, logistics experts and even vice presidents of operations can now show impressive IT résumés. The list goes on and on. You'd think the government would have heard of social media, mobile computing, data analytics, collaboration technology and ERP by now.

Why does the classification matter? It matters for two reasons. The traditional part of the IT workforce was hit pretty hard by the recession, spurring debate about whether IT is still a viable profession. But when you look at how great the other 80 per cent of IT professionals are doing, the notion of a jobless recovery or weakness in demand for IT skills and workers is utterly ridiculous.

The intensity of the debate is the other reason why we have to get this right. As the boomers start to retire in big numbers, we can't afford to let young workers coming into the workforce mistakenly think that there aren't enormous IT job and career opportunities available to them. The bottom line is that there's never been a better time in history to be starting or building an IT career than right now, nor one with as many entry points and options. Once you grasp the reality of how much the label "IT professional" has changed, it becomes pretty obvious.

Do you think the workers see themselves as hybrids? What matters more is that their employers do. Even traditional IT jobs have been reshuffled and substantially redefined, with new skill requirements and aptitudes piled on, even though many times the job titles have remained unchanged. It's driving HR departments crazy, especially compensation managers who have to figure out how to pay and reward these so-called IT-business hybrid workers competitively. These are high-impact contributors you can't afford to lose, and the market for them has been red-hot for a long time.

What does all this mean for employers? It's a daunting challenge for both the public and private sectors because the role of IT in the enterprise is so pervasive that managing it is now distributed throughout the enterprise. Each group has to determine how to make the best use of IT to produce revenues and profits, build or protect market share, provide services, ensure that customers remain satisfied, control costs, innovate solutions, and generally stay competitive.

This kind of pervasive IT is at odds with organizational structures and management habits and practices that have been in place for decades. There's resistance. There's also a skills acquisition feeding frenzy happening -- employers are frantically searching for people with unique combinations of knowledge, experience and skills. It's driving huge growth numbers in managed services, cloud computing, contractors, consultants and the entire services industry. At least the government got this one right: The jobs reports show more than 80,000 new jobs in the technical consulting services industry over the past 12 months.

State CIOs Face Hiring Challenges

In a report titled "State IT Workforce: Under Pressure," the National Association of State Chief Information Officers took a look at the staffing challenges facing CIOs of state governments. They include hiring freezes, looming retirements of baby boomers and a decrease in interest in public sector careers among younger people. The CIOs were also asked which specific skills present the greatest challenges when it comes to attracting and retaining IT employees.

Skill

Percentage of CIOs who said it poses a hiring and retention challenge

Security

52.4%

Project management

50%

Application and mobile application development and support

47.6%

Architecture

47.6%

Analysis and design

42.9%

Networking support

40.5%

Infrastructure/cloud computing

31%

Web development/support

28.6%

Mainframe support

28.6%

Client/server development and support

26.2%

Contract management

23.8%

Disaster recovery/business continuity

21.4%

Testing/quality assurance

16.7%

Geospatial analysis

14.3%

Web 2.0/social media development and support

9.5%

Help desk and training

7.1%

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