Where have all the techies gone?

For many potential hires, the luster of information technology careers has faded because of misperception about job availability.

By MADHUSMITA BORA, Times Staff Writer
Published September 23, 2007

Within the next year, Saru Seshadri wants 50 high-tech employees to fuel his growing company.

There's just one glitch.

A shrinking pool of high-skilled workers nationwide is slowing the recruitment drive. In the past three months, Ultramatics Inc., the Oldsmar-based IT solutions provider hired fewer than a dozen.

"It should be much faster," Seshadri said. "I'm really surprised it's taken this long."

What's slowing the process?

The dot-com thud, a retiring baby boomer population and the unflattering publicity emanating from outsourcing and off-shoring tales turned IT- a once hot discipline - sour for students.

As employees exit the work force, there simply aren't enough replacements.

Enrollment in computer science courses slumped 39 percent in 200, compared with 2001-2002, according to a Computing Research Association report.

At the University of South Florida, bachelor's and master's degrees awarded by the Information Systems and Decision Sciences Department dropped 56 percent between 2000 and 2006.

"Companies are puzzled about the declining enrollment in the program given the demand for workers," said Kaushal Chari, professor and chair of the Information Systems and Decision Sciences Department at USF.

He can blame the dot-com bust at the turn of the century. Students and anxious parents convinced that there were fewer IT jobs steered toward courses that seemed more profitable and stable. Suddenly, selling homes became the career of choice rather than writing codes and developing software.

"I can tell you many IT professionals got into real estate mortgages back in 2001 and 2002," said Fritz Eichelberger, owner of hotspaces.net, an IT social networking Web site. "There were few IT jobs going around then and real estate was booming."

At the Computer Science Teachers Association, they started hearing about diminishing student interest in the field five years ago, said Chris Stephenson, executive director of CSTA. But the recent drop in enrollment has been much more marked than in previous years, Stephenson said.

"There's more fear that it's not a cyclical shift but a major ongoing downturn," she said.

Paradoxically, U.S. high-tech employment grew 3 percent in 2006, a second consecutive year of increases since the tech industry's tumble in 2001, according to AeA, a high-tech trade association.

"Experts attribute the job growth to renewed interest among corporations toward developing business applications now that companies are done pouring money into post-Enron accounting compliance efforts.

"We are getting to the point where there's more job creation than people to fill them," said Matthew Kazmierczak, vice president, research and industry analysis, AeA.

What makes employers jittery is the ballooning segment of workers who are fast approaching the retirement age.

"Numbers show that 70-million baby boomers are planning to exit the workforce in the next five to 12 years," said Paul Kontogiorgis, co-founder and program director of IBM's Services Sciences, Management and Engineering IT Services curriculum. "We will have 40-million entering the work force to take those jobs."

IBM has thousands of IT-related jobs that are vacant, Kontogiorgis said. Openings often remain frozen for months until the company chances upon the right candidates.

"There's just a misperception in the world that there aren't any jobs available and everything is going to India and China," Kontogiorgis said.

Smaller companies in smaller markets are the worst hit by the shortage as the marketplace becomes fiercely competitive. Salaries have increased $20,000 to $30,000 per year for some of the jobs, said Eichelberger.

"People in New York, California and Chicago are paying well over Tampa market rates," he said.

"What we are seeing is an exodus of Tampa IT professionals flying to engagements all over the U.S. to make double, almost triple of what they make here."

Big Sur Technologies Inc., a Tampa managed-services provider, took six months to fill three positions that opened last fall.

"The word on the street is everyone's hiring and people are sucking up available talent and also tempting away employees with higher pay," said Sam Sandusky, president. "We had to pay a little more for our hires and it was tough and competitive."

As the crisis looms, companies also have strengthened hiring policies. Mastering a programming language and knowing how to manage a database aren't qualifying factors to land lucrative offers anymore.

Companies now demand industry knowledge and social skills in addition to technical expertise from applicants. A Gartner Group Study says by 2010, six of 10 people affiliated with IT will assume business-facing roles.

Some employers and academicians are taking note.

Last year, IBM's Kontogiorgis launched an IT services curriculum for universities. IBM supplies coursework and software tools for the program that has wider applications and steers away from cornering students into one particular IT discipline. Kontogiorgis said.

"We feel there's a disconnect between academia and the industry and what we are hoping to do is bridge the gap and find a solution," he said.

Last week, Missouri State University announced that it was adopting the program.

Closer to home at USF, they began offering courses such as Information Security & Risk Management and Enterprise Resource Planning. Enrollment is slightly up this year, though the numbers pale in comparison to the peak years.

"It takes a while for the good news to reach parents and students that there are jobs out there," said Chari of USF. These days, he has been talking up his department to newly admitted students, and anyone who would listen to him.

"Maybe we can even reach out to high school students some day," he said.

Madhusmita Bora can be reached at (813) 225-3112 or mbora@sptimes.com