Negative view of IT jobs causing talent drain

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.
Written by Jamie Yap, Contributor

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 "="" class="c-regularLink" target="_blank" rel="noopener nofollow">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.

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