technology since 2011

As both a potential employer and interviewee, I look in amazement (although not surprise) at the types of positions that are available. Even with an economy of over 9% employment and mixed indicators of growth, the number of open positions in the technology arena are tremendous. And every time I talk with recruiters, I hear the same story: it is difficult to find engineering talent. One even mentioned that he feared that we’ll starting seeing the crazy incentives of Porsches and the like being offered as sign-on bonuses that we say in the late 1990s.

The obvious paradox of high unemployment and lots of job openings is a well known and studied topic; in any economic shift, the labor pool that is unemployed lacks the skills needed to fill the needs of employers. But given that technology sector has been growing for the past 15 years, why has the labor force not adjusted?

By my observations, the real answer lies not in 2011, but, instead in 2004. During that year, two things happened. First, students who were graduating college had entered school in the dot-com bubble burst, where technology companies looked unstable and uncertain at their prospects of longevity. Students were graduating in areas other than computer science and engineering, with the lowest graduation rates of these disciplines seen in decades. The focus was more on business (real estate, finance, consulting) and the biological sciences.

Second, by that time, most companies had ridden the initial wave of digitization, giving access to every person and moving much of their operations into the digital space. Investment in technology improvements had declined dramatically. Productivity had sored and companies were riding on their successes not just four years earlier.

Then, why, during one of the most difficult economic times the economy has seen, is there another resurgence in technological investment requiring a workforce like anything I’ve ever seen? Companies have realized that their installed systems are now, after 10 years, reaching the end of their life expectancy. Also, the move away from installed systems and into more web/cloud-based computing paradigms, all of these applications are being redeveloped from the ground up.

Good news for technologist? And for students entering college who are starting down the path of studying technology? Even as late as the 1980s and 1990s, business philosophy looked at some investment was a more long-term focused strategy: Xerox-PARC, IBM Research,  Los Alamos, etc.  Now, however, I fear that with the much shorter-term focus on investment is going to get us caught in a difficult cycle of mismatching labor needs and labor skills. Colleges and universities are now, not five years later, seeing the highest enrollment in technology fields they have ever seen. But it remains to be seen if the jobs they yearn for and are available now, will be there when they graduate in four years. Companies may well be done with this wave of technology investment and find that they have enticed the labor pool to move into careers they will no longer need.