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Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Who in their right mind would major in computer science now?
Posted by Jill | 5:37 AM
It wasn't that long ago that tech skills were touted as the key to landing a job in the "new service economy" or the "new information economy" or whatever it was called in any given year by Thomas Friedman, whose own job is about dead trees. And yes, for a while, anyone with the right degree, or even a willingness to learn, could get into IT.

But the days when someone like me, who was able to get an entry-level programming job simply by transferring my secretarial skills into the IT department working for the department heads, expressing a desire to get into programming, and starting a couple of graduate courses, are over. I was extraordinarily lucky, even by the standards of 1988. I had a basic knowledge of programming concepts from struggling through an Introduction to Pascal course, but I required training in the 4GL that was being used, and the VAX operating system on which it ran. I learned as I went. I stopped grad school because I had to learn how to do my job. Two years later I saw that PC programming was the way to go, taught myself C out of a book, and got a job with a smalll investment consulting company writing C programs, working with the database application Paradox, and doing some Novell Netware administration -- all learned on the fly, on the job. Three years later I took a job that in short order I grew to hate, working on voice response systems. But it was walking distance from home, there was no commuting time, and I was able to go back to school and have it paid for. I stuck it out for a year and moved to another small software VAR, where I wrote Visual Basic programs after teaching myself THAT out of a book before even starting the job, and where I got into basic HTML web sites in 1996 -- again, teaching myself out of a book.

IT was like that in those days. The ability to learn quickly, a willingness to just jump in, initiative, some smarts -- that was all you needed.

Not today. Today, you can teach yourself out of a book till the cows come home. You can have skills in fourteen different programming languages, and if you are missing the fifteenth, you are out of luck. Ads for IT people contain a laundry list of skills that no one person can possibly have, because they involve completely different kinds of left brain/right brain dominance. You'll see ads for someone who has experience in a dozen programming languages, who's an experienced network administrator, a computer security expert, a graphic designer, a technical writer, and a trainer. And that's an ad for one job.

None of these jobs exist, of course. They are designed to have nobody qualify for them so that companies can wail that there just aren't enough qualified people and they simiply HAVE to outsource the wrok to countries that pay a dollar an hour at most.

And so, while politicians of both parties are continuing to laud education and "retraining" as a panacea for the unemployment situation, as they continue with the old chestnut that it's simply a question of workers gaining new tech skills, those who have lost their tech jobs, especially if they are over 40, might as well be auto workers:
“We are talking about people with very particular, advanced skills out there who are at this point just not needed anymore,” says Bart van Ark, chief economist at the Conference Board, a business and economic research organization. “Even in this sector, there is tremendous insecurity.”

Government labor reports released this year, including the most recent one, present a tableau of shrinking opportunities in high-skill fields.

Job growth in fields like computer systems design and Internet publishing has been slow in the last year. Employment in areas like data processing and software publishing has actually fallen. Additionally, computer scientists, systems analysts and computer programmers all had unemployment rates of around 6 percent in the second quarter of this year.

While that might sound like a blessing compared with the rampant joblessness in manufacturing, it is still significantly higher than the unemployment rates in other white-collar professions.

The chief hurdles to more robust technology hiring appear to be increasing automation and the addition of highly skilled labor overseas. The result is a mismatch of skill levels here at home: not enough workers with the cutting-edge skills coveted by tech firms, and too many people with abilities that can be duplicated offshore at lower cost.

That’s a familiar situation to many out-of-work software engineers, whose skills start depreciating almost as soon as they are laid off, given the dynamism of the industry.

“I’m sending out lots and lots and lots of applications, to everywhere within a 50-mile radius,” says Rosamaria Carbonell Mann, 49, a software engineer who was terminated in June when her employer closed its branch in Corvallis, Ore., and sent the work to China.

Corvallis was once a hotbed for tech start-ups. But Ms. Mann said that with layoffs from other tech companies in the area, including Hewlett-Packard, the city now has a glut of people like herself: unemployed engineers with multiple degrees. “I apply for everything I can find, but there are just not that many jobs out there,” she said.

Nevertheless, many high-tech companies large and small say they are struggling to find highly skilled engineering talent in the United States.

“We are firing up our college recruiting program, enduring all manner of humiliation to try to fill these jobs,” said Glenn Kelman, chief executive of Redfin, an online brokerage agency for buying and selling homes that is based in Seattle and San Francisco. “I do think we’re still chasing them, not the other way around.”

Perhaps companies are still chasing workers because they have absolutely no idea what to look for. You are not going to get a graphic designer and a guy who can bang out thousands of lines of bug-free code in a day in the same person. Network administrators usually don't have experience with technical writing. A C# programmer isn't going to be able to design your logos or write your marketing copy. However, a 49-year-old C++ programmer can get up to speed with C# in a matter of weeks simply by just starting to do the job.

But of course companies don't think like this. The hiring process tends to be run by human resources departments the staffs of which have no idea what the difference is between a programmer and a network administrator, between a web designer and software engineer. Resumes are culled out by keywords, and if yours doesn't have every keyword they're looking for, you are out of luck.

I contrast the plight of IT workers with my own situation over the last two years. Looking back, I'm astonished at how spectacularly unqualified I was at the time I was hired for the job I currently have. Oh, I had some passing familiarity with the process of the job from my previous one, but for the last three years on my previous job, most of what I did was build web sites, not the kind of medical applications for which I interviewed. I remember interviewing for this job, and answering questions with "No....no....I don't have experience with that....no, we had a guy who built that...no...no, but I did do...." I walked out of there thinking "Well, that was a waste of two hours", and two weeks later I had an offer.

As it turns out, the department was building a staff largely from scratch. Some people who couldn't handle the move to data capture systems left, others were hired, and I am after a mere two years the #3 person in seniority. The learning curve has been at times like climbing Mount Everest. I'm largely balanced between left brain and right brain, with slight right brain dominance. I gravitate towards writing and words and emotion rather than numbers and logic. Science programs on television make me glaze over, but I'll watch intently a program on how to build a kitchen cabinet. This balance allows me to do more quantitative work than a purely right-brained person would be able to do, but it does not come naturally. But I was fifty-three when I took the job, I am fifty-five now, and I've not only been able to learn almost from scratch new tools, new concepts, and also how to lead groups of people, but I've also won two employee awards for doing so. My experience makes every single argument that companies make for not hiring in the US ring completely hollow.

For better or worse, our society is organized around work, much of it around working for someone else. If we are evolving into a race to the bottom, in which the companies that used to employ us are chasing ever-cheaper, ever-more-exploitable workers, then this notion of work is going to have to change. I'm not sure what it should or will become, but simply demonizing those that corporations have left behind, or believing the claims of "We can't find qualified people", is not the answer.

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Blogger Nan said...
You nailed it. Employers will do job descriptions with requirements that no one employee could hope to have combined in one body, and then use that as an excuse to troll for foreign tech help willing to work for a lot less than the standard US rates for IT expertise.

And not it's not just IT -- did you see the news reports about the state of Louisiana hiring public school teachers under H-1B? Foreign teachers were placed in Louisiana by some contractor who then (what a surprise) abused them by paying less than promised, providing substandard housing, etc. What possible justification could any school district possibly have for claiming they couldn't find teachers in this country? The trucking company Schneider recruits drivers overseas, and hospitals and nursing homes are full of Filipino nurses working on H-1B visas. I know there is a shortage of nurses, but truck drivers?

Blogger Leslie said...
Yes. I hadn't thought of that as the reason for the ridiculous job descriptions, but yes. And: why people think that just because something is done on a computer, any random IT person should be able to do it, I wish I understood.