Now Hiring! If You're Young
By NORMAN MATLOFF
DAVIS, Calif -- Readers of recent reports about a shortage of computer programmers would be baffled if they also knew that Microsoft hires only 2 percent of its applicants for software positions. Even among those applicants whom Microsoft invites to its headquarters for interviews, according to David Pritchard, the director of recruiting, the company makes offers to only one in four.
You don't have to be a "techie" to see that such a low ratio, typical for the industry, contradicts the claims of a software labor shortage. If companies were that desperate, they simply could not be so picky.
The real story here is more profound: the rampant age discrimination in the industry. High-tech companies save money by shunning most midcareer programmers and focusing their hiring on new or recent college graduates, who are cheaper and can work lots of overtime.
As a result, careers in the programming field tend to be short-lived. According to a survey conducted by the National Science Foundation and the Census Bureau, six years after finishing college, 57 percent of computer science graduates are working as programmers; at 15 years the figure drops to 34 percent, and at 20 years -- when most are still only in their early 40's -- it is down to 19 percent.
In contrast, the figures for civil engineering are 61 percent, 52 percent and 52 percent. As one industry executive stated a few years ago at a stockholders' meeting when asked about corporate downsizing, "The half-life of an engineer, software or hardware, is only a few years."
Those claiming a software labor shortage point to low unemployment rates, but such data have little relevance. A programmer who becomes, say, an insurance agent after failing to find programming work counts in the statistics as an employed insurance seller, not an unemployed software worker.
Nor do salary trends indicate a shortage. The average increase in wages for programmers in the past year was only 7 percent -- and that figure is skewed upward by the lucky few with hot new software skills who command higher pay.
Employers justify shunting aside midcareer programmers on the ground that they lack skills in the latest software languages. Yet even if a programmer takes a course in, say, the new Java language, employers will still tend not hire him or her for a Java project. "Taking a course is just not going to work for a senior person, given his salary," said Maryann Rousseau, an employment agent. Why hire a retrained but more expensive 40-year-old when a cheaper new graduate is available?
And the skills issue is a red herring; any competent programmer, if given a chance to learn on the job, can become productive in a new software technology within a few weeks.
Nevertheless, the Information Technology Association of America, an industry trade group, is asking the Federal Government for financing to increase the number of students enrolled as computer science majors. The trade group also wants an increased quota of temporary work visas for foreign programmers, in spite of a Labor Department finding that abuse in the program, like paying foreign workers lower salaries, is rampant. From 1990 to 1996, employer applications for visas for foreign programmers mushroomed by 300 percent, even though software jobs increased by only 40 percent in this period.
College computer science enrollments exploded by 40 percent last year. But once word gets out that the half-life of a techie is only a few years, how many will see it as the fast track to money and success?
Norman Matloff is a professor of computer science at the University of California at Davis.