Negative view of IT jobs causing talent drain

Negative view of IT jobs causing talent drain

Summary: Despite demand, supply of skilled ICT workers is on the wane due to unattractive image of ICT work and lack of quality tech education in schools, say industry experts.


Despite industry demand for skilled information and communications technology (ICT) professionals, unappealing perceptions of such jobs and the lack of comprehensive tech education courses in schools have left a widening hole in the qualified and experienced IT workforce, say market players and analysts.

Andrew Milroy, ICT director at Frost & Sullivan, told ZDNet Asia that in mature economies such as Singapore, Australia and the United Kingdom, there is a "real shortage" of qualified ICT professionals armed with the "technical and practical skills [to perform] the hardcore technical jobs".

Examples of such skills, said Milroy, include internetworking engineering or programming in languages such as C or C++, Java and .Net skills. There are shortages of skills in all the areas, he said.

The Australia-based analyst said via phone that the main problem causing the labor scarcity is largely "an image issue", which has a lot to do with the perception of IT jobs and the information technology industry as a whole.

According to Milroy, most people in developed nations think that working in IT is "not very cool or glamorous", and would rather do something that "pays a bit less but is much more fun".

He added that the unpopularity of ICT is also reflected on a tertiary level, where fewer students are opting to do tech courses in schools. In richer countries, people these days tend to take more of a risk and do "softer" disciplines such as communications or journalism, Milroy said.

He said that the present view is in stark contrast with the late 1990s when the IT industry was at its peak--prior to the market's drastic plunge in 2000.

Alvin Chan, who holds a PhD in electrical and electronics engineering from the University of Aberdeen in the U.K., shared Milroy's view of the shift in society's mindset.

In an e-mail interview, Chan, the chief technology officer and co-founder of Brandtology, said that "up to before the dot-com bubble burst in 2000-2001, everyone was into IT and was paid well".

But after Tech Wreck happened, Chan recalled that some of his friends and fellow graduates turned to the biotech, finance and insurance industries or switched to totally non-IT-related jobs.

Absence of qualified ICT workforce
Professor Chong Chee Leong, dean of PSB Academy, said the negative impression of the ICT industry also stemmed from people thinking that such jobs offer low wages and few career prospects.

In an e-mail, Chong said that prolific publicity of IT outsourcing over the past decade has left the "impression that all IT jobs were going to India and China" due to the lower salaries for such specialized skills. As a result, fewer IT jobs were available in several developed countries, and many IT professionals ended up doing IT project management rather than the more hardcore tech jobs, he continued.

What followed was a "vicious spiral downward", Chong described. Since students saw few career prospects in IT, enrollment numbers for tech courses dropped. Some courses therefore had to be scrapped for economic reasons, and that only limited the scope of IT areas that could be taught in a curriculum, he explained.

As a result, the lower quality of ICT information taught at schools often does not produce the [qualified] graduates needed by the industry, which increasingly "lacks the manpower with the appropriate skills, be they new or existing", said Chong.

Brandtology CTO Chan's experience when it comes to hiring ICT professionals is exemplary of the dearth of homegrown tech talent. "When I'm recruiting software engineers or developers, applicants are usually foreigners from India, followed by China nationals. Very few are locals," he said.

Demand exists for ICT expertise
The shortage of ICT talent does not mean there is less demand for it in the market, Chan said. On the other hand, there continues to be a need for ICT skills because every industry requires IT, he explained.

A Singapore Polytechnic spokesperson told ZDNet Asia that in Singapore, the number of employed infocomm manpower grew by 1.3 percent, from 139,000 in 2008 to 140,800 in 2009, based on IDA's 2009 Annual Infocomm Manpower Survey.

The survey results reflect a positive outlook for the infocomm industry, and that infocomm professionals are still much sought after, the spokesperson said in an e-mail.

And despite the economic downturn in 2009, there were still 2,600 infocomm job vacancies, he added.

Frost analyst Milroy, however, felt that while demand for ICT skills will continue, the growth is likely to slow down. He pointed out that as more tasks become automated and cloud computing gets more ubiquitous, fewer managers are needed on the ground. This would make the gap between supply and demand of ICT skills less severe, he said.

Yet, there will always be onsite work to be done as well as a need for customized applications, and ICT skills will never go away completely, he noted.

Topics: IT Employment, CXO, Outsourcing

Jamie Yap

About Jamie Yap

Jamie writes about technology, business and the most obvious intersection of the two that is software. Other variegated topics include--in one form or other--cloud, Web 2.0, apps, data, analytics, mobile, services, and the three Es: enterprises, executives and entrepreneurs. In a previous life, she was a writer covering a different but equally serious business called show business.

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  • One can not easily replace an aging workforce of people leaving traditional information technology roles into management (and/or elsewhere) who grew up with MS-DOS, IBM PC DOS, Windows (before *and* after NT4 / 2000) and (at least one of) the Unix/Linux/BSD booms.

    IT firms, and IT deparments within non-IT centric firms need to start looking at the education and sharing of knowledge. Ideally the 'passing down' of knowledge over the generations of IT (both macro and micro generations, if you get my gist).
  • For Example: Drake have stopped offering Information Technology courses and certifications where I live. They now appear focused on the Medical 'Sub-Professional' boom. (Huge demand for nurses, doctors, and the like.)

    Government spending is no longer focused on Information Technology as 70% of IT Projects are outright failures, the remaining 30% are not always considered a sucess and very few are even performed or implemented in a cost effective (over time) manner.

    Each IT Project requires another IT Project to fix (problems caused by) it, creating an often never ending stream of money for contractors. This stream might have come close to running out during the GFC.

    The graph of 'outstanding problems' is anything but an (desirable) asymptote.

    I'd love to know what other people think about this, especially those with stakes in IT 'marketing' or web-hosting.

    (I'm also curious if the comments are cross-site [in the good way] between the various geographic flavours of Ziff Davis Net.)
  • I heard a story just last week where an programmer in Malaysia (where I am) had lost his job, so he drove a taxi for a living. Then one day, his former employer called him back and offered him a salary of about RM2,500 (around US$806) and he told them to shove it as he was getting around RM4,000 (US$1290) per month driving the taxi.

    How true that is I'm not sure but another thing about programing is that you can become obsolete in no time. I know many veteran IT professionals who are members of the Malaysian National Computer Confederation who are highly capable in those old coding languages such as FORTRAN, COBOL, Assembler, etc but who are now "obsolete," while just as old architects, aeronautical engineers & technicians, lawyers, doctors, opticians, accountants are driving cars and enjoying a lifestyle which I as a former computer service engineer turned IT journalist can only dream of.

    Then let's not forget how easily, IT jobs can be outsourced to lower wage countries.

    In hindsight, I should have listened to my mother and become a doctor like her.

    BTW. I hear that Malaysia's upcoming budget to be announced in November will not have additional allocations for IT spending.
  • Unfortunately, the myth that every programming job will get outsourced to China and India seems to just perpetual itself.
    As an IT professional, I just do not think that it is true. Outsourcing has a lot of hidden overheads and risks and bulk migration of jobs is not feasible in most cases for the long term.
    And most importantly costs are rising in China and India. So while outsourcing makes sense for Europe and US where wages are a lot higher, wage differences taking into consideration skill sets do not vary that much within Asia.
    But lower wages compared to other professionals are a real challenge.
    If as undergrad thinks he can make more being a lawyer or doctor or banker, he will shun IT. Unfortunately, I see no quick solutions to this....
  • They're actually getting outsourced to Singapore. Oracle have dumped several in the last few months post Sun Microsystems accquisition, even HP and others have too.

    Combined there are about 12,000 'experienced' software developers / software engineers looking for new contracts in the Asia Pacific region.

    Seriously, what point is there to even try and compete with 12K people with more experience than it is affordable to get. (Especially considering it would take most people 10 years to get to the level they got to in just 6 to 8 years. For reasons I will not go into.).

    + I am sure you can come up with even better search words/phrases.