(IT) Workers of the World, Unite

By eweek  |  Posted 2002-10-11

(IT) Workers of the World, Unite

As the IT spending slump drags on, resulting in lots of layoffs and little hiring, the pain of unemployed and underemployed IT workers is starting to express itself in some strange ways.

This week, for example, WashTech, a Seattle-based affiliate of the Communication Workers of America union, picked up on a story that a programmer in Sacramento has offered the Information Technology Association of America $1,000 if they can find his friend an IT job.

The programmer didnt target the ITAA because of its job placement prowess. Instead, the programmer was trying to poke holes in the ITAAs widely quoted (and frequently doubted) estimates that, although the number of IT jobs in the U.S. has shrunk by 500,000 over the past year, within the next 12 months employers will be looking hire for 1.1 million IT positions, 600,000 of which will go unfilled because employers cant find qualified workers.

The fact that his friend, an experienced IT professional, cant even get job interviews is proof that the ITAAs numbers are flawed and that the situation is much worse than the organization claims, said programmer Kim Berry in the WashTech story.

"Its not only that they say there are jobs, but also that theres going to be so many jobs that they cant even fill [the] jobs they have--500,000 going unfilled because they cant find people. My challenge to them is--name one job," Berry was quoted as saying.

Later in the week, the ITAA numbers came under attack again, this time by the Virginia Coalition for Immigration Reform, which called for a demonstration outside of ITAA headquarters in Arlington. The demonstration was supposed to be timed to coincide with meetings between ITAA officials and officials from the Department of Labor, the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Department of State to discuss the controversial H-1B Visa program.

Problem was, ITAA officials told eWeek no such meetings were scheduled. And, when time for the marching and chanting began, only eight demonstrators showed up. Not the sort of event thats going to impress many lawmakers in the nations capital.

Naturally, the ITAA basically ignored both stunts. But as goofy as they might seem, they are a clear reflection of the pain and anger many IT professionals feel today. The current, deep and prolonged recession in IT spending and hiring has toppled long-held and cherished assumptions: That industry growth and demand for IT skills would climb forever resulting in high wages and job security. Now many IT professionals are angry, and theyre looking for someone or something to blame.

I dont blame them. But I do think the obsession with the ITAA job growth numbers is misplaced. Although the organization describes itself as representing "the broad spectrum of the world-leading U.S. IT industry," the ITAA is in fact a lobbying organization, primarily for IT hardware, software and services vendors. These companies have large IT staffs, and they benefit from a plentiful, ready supply of highly skilled (and preferably inexpensive) IT labor.

Its the ITAAs job to influence Congress and anyone else it can to make sure that labor supply exists. So the workforce numbers the ITAA puts out must be seen in that context: as a tool to achieve the goals of the organization and its members.

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To be fair, as the IT job environment has worsened, the ITAA has reduced the number of new IT jobs it says will be created over the next 12 months by 27 percent. Still, to expect the ITAA to bow to public pressure and declare that the IT work force is in crisis and that the H-1B program must end is a bit like expecting the National Rifle Association to disavow handguns because too many convenience stores are getting held up. It aint going to happen.

Rather than targeting the ITAA, IT workers should emulate it. That means organizing in order to influence lawmakers and represent the interests of IT workers in other ways. The problem is that, while IT employers are well-organized and well-funded, IT workers are not. So, for example, IT employers and the ITAA have been able give lawmakers a reason to vote for expansion of the H-1B Visa program by presenting it as an essential tool for U.S. competitiveness.

Campaign contributions probably havent hurt, either. IT workers, while vocal, have been far less organized on the issue.

Im not suggesting that IT professionals unionize in the classic AFL-CIO sense. IT workers dont really have the collective culture for that. But something along the lines of the American Association of Retired Persons would make sense. The AARP isnt a union, but it represents 30 million members, and you can bet its officials get their calls to Capitol Hill returned.

A similar organization for IT professionals wouldnt be able to boast the same numbers. But, with an estimated 10 million or so IT workers in the U.S. to draw from, it would probably be able to at least put on a decent demonstration.

IT Careers Executive Editor Jeff Moad can be reached at jeff_moad@ziffdavis.com.

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