IT Work Force Gap Looming

Opinion: Now that students are avoiding IT studies like the plague, it's not only safe to study IT again, it's also the smart thing to do.

Nerds, apparently, travel in herds. What else could explain the fact that IT has gone from being, so it seemed, the only worthwhile occupation for any human being—circa 1999, at the maximum expansion of the dot-com bubble—to a profession less popular than, say, dogcatcher, circa now.

But when everyone else is caught up in a lemming rush, it often makes sense to head in the opposite direction. Now that students are avoiding IT studies like the plague, its not only safe to study IT again, its also the smart thing to do. That, at least, is according to one of the most eminent professors in the field of IT education, John Rockart of MIT.

"There is a drop in IT enrollments. We are not turning out enough people to meet the needs," said Rockart during a panel discussion titled "The Changing IT Workforce" at the recent Forrester Research Executive Strategy Forum in Boston. From the maximum point of the dot-com bubble, Washington State Universitys IT enrollment is down 60 percent; the University of Virginias is down 50 percent, said Rockart.

Why are students blind to this golden opportunity? Two reasons, said Rockart: the dot-com bust and offshore outsourcing. But, Rockart countered, "less than 2 percent of IT jobs are outsourced, and IT salaries are actually terrific."

Forrester analyst Laurie Orlov said in the same discussion that not only are young people not entering the IT field, but older workers, laden with knowledge, are retiring. "Business is at risk. Workers are retiring and will leave unfilled openings. Old people with knowledge are leaving, and new people without knowledge are coming in," Orlov said.

Lisa Tondreau, a partner in IBM Business Consulting Services, said one step that can help plug the looming gap is to encourage baby boomers to stay in the work force rather than retire en masse. Companies should also put solid succession plans in place, she said.

But already, the problem is serious. "One utility company has 460 vacancies they cant fill. Its a business-risk issue," said panelist Connie Moore, also a Forrester analyst.

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One seemingly obvious response would be to reopen the H-1B floodgates. But the panelists said that wont be enough. H-1Bs, after all, are intended to be temporary, and the looming gap appears to be ongoing.

How should academia respond to the looming shortfall? "A new curriculum is needed," said Rockart, "a business-technology curriculum." More project management is needed, along with systems analysis, systems design, architecture and security, he said.

One panel discussion does not a sea change make, but common sense does tell you that, before the lemmings dive into the sea, it never hurts to stick your head up and look around. If what these experts say is true, get ready for a buyers market for IT jobs.

Out and about

EDS signed a five-year, $500 million worldwide IT outsourcing deal with giant grocery retailer Royal Ahold, of Amsterdam, Netherlands. Royal Ahold, which owns U.S. supermarket chains such as Stop & Shop and Giant, has about 4,000 stores worldwide.

Ahold, which suffered financial reverses several years ago—and which last week agreed to pay $1.1 billion to settle a class action lawsuit brought by U.S. shareholders—has grown through acquisitions and now needs to centralize and standardize its IT resources, said Trevor Nagel, a partner at Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman, a law firm that assisted in the deal.

EDS will purchase, maintain and support hardware and software for Ahold as it takes over the retailers IT infrastructure, including hosting Aholds mainframe and midrange servers and providing LAN and voice network support. EDS will also take over support for 9,600 desktops, laptops, printers and e-mail users.

In the deal, 450 Ahold employees in the Netherlands and the United States will leave the company and work for EDS. EDS cited its Agility Alliance partners Cisco, EMC, Microsoft and Sun as collaborators on the deal.

Stan Gibson can be reached at

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