Letters to the Editor
San Jose Mercury News
January 24, 1998
(reprinted here by permission)

I was annoyed by Joanne Jacobs' column ("Who will fill all the high-tech jobs?" Opinion, Jan. 12), although I hold her mainly blameless for repeating the dire predictions regularly made concerning the shortage of qualified data processing technicians. The Mercury News seems to offer up the latest survey results, forecasts and accompanying concern too often.

Who knows, there may truly be a shortage, but in my experience it has always been a shortage of people with very specific knowledge. I am a computer programmer myself. I have had to hunt for work four times since I first started in the field. None of those experiences proved to me that employers were dying for want of prospects.

My most recent experience came last January. Rumors of a buyout and staff cut (which came to pass) were circulating. When I heard the rumors last year I didn't wait to get my resume together, and start looking for another job.

The companies with which I dealt may have felt there was a shortage of prospects for openings, but I found that they create this shortage by the technical prerequisites that they have for prospects. Over time I have built up a pretty decent general knowledge of how computer systems work and have done plenty of designing, fixing and investigating. However, this background seemed to be completely useless when I was confronted with a human resources representative or hiring manager if I didn't have exactly the skill set that they were trying to find. When I find myself turned down because I don't have six months experience with Java, even though I've programmed in languages that were far harder to learn, and I could probably be up to speed in Java long before I am up to speed with the business of the company, then I think that the company has created its own shortage.

I have known plenty (probably dozens) of intelligent, capable programmers who have found themselves in this same position.

-- Ross Hotchkiss
Redwood City

TIME and again I see articles about shortage of information technology personnel in United States. I also see a claim of thousands of jobs waiting to be filled. Being a computer professional for the last 14 years and having spent 10 years in the U.S., I know the reality is that today's managers are not competent enough to identify talent. They merely look for a few key words and jargon on resumes.

Today's information technology managers (with some exceptions) don't have the proper training to help a subordinate build a meaningful career. They want someone to come on board and take responsibility right away and produce results. Obviously, a vast majority of applicants do not fit into thiscategory.

You don't need computer science graduates to fill all the openings. What you need is the guts to identify people who are interested in computing and train them to your requirements. I do not see that happening in the U.S. in the near future. As a result, you will continue to hear utter nonsense, such as there are 200,000 positions remaining vacant.

-- Srikant Ramabadran

IN recent weeks, there's been considerable head-scratching about why there aren't enough high-tech workers to go around. Obviously, there's a high demand and these positions pay well. So why aren't more people flocking into the field? The consensus seems to be that it's a public relations problem -- that darned nerd image is getting in the way.

However, I think the problem may lie elsewhere. Consider the opening sentence of an article on Microsoft (Page 1C, Jan. 17): "On the campus where food is strictly fuel for another lap around the digital track and a mere eight-hour day is considered slacking off . . ."

Does anyone find that image appealing? I'd be willing to wager that it's not the nerd image that's keeping many people away from high-tech; it's the lifestyle . . . or the perceived lack thereof.

These days, most people want a personal life, and it doesn't appear that many high-tech workers get one. So maybe people are making a completely rational decision that the financial payoff of a high-tech job isn't worth the expected sacrifice of their personal lives. And if that's the case, a new recruitment and training program won't fix high-tech's staffing problems. Only a change in corporate culture and values will fix that.

-- Cynthia A. McCune
San Mateo

I was disappointed in the lack of balance in two articles in the Jan. 12 Mercury News, one by Rajiv Chandrasekaran ("Programmer shortage spurs U.S. funding," Page 1A) and the other by Joanne Jacobs, about the alleged shortage of high-tech workers claimed by a computer industry trade group, the Information Technology Association of America.

ITAA is trying to establish that Americans are unable or unwilling to enter high-tech fields.

The real reason for the "shortage" is lack of planning by corporate management, poor recruitment practices and unwillingness to retrain workers. The latter is especially important in the case of workers over 40, who are a large and growing part of the high-tech work force.

I support efforts to encourage Americans to enter high-tech fields, and to retrain those whose skills have become out of date (which happens every five years or so in the computer industry). These efforts can only succeed if wages remain high, workers are not exploited by unpaid overtime, and one can expect job security and employability over age 40.

However, ITAA's real motive is to eliminate the current cap on H1-B work visas for foreign engineers, currently at around 65,000 a year, to prevent the free market from bidding up wages.

America needs a new labor policy to ensure that these jobs are filled by Americans by discouraging their migration overseas and by discouraging the importation of overseas workers to fill them.

-- Mark Townsend
San Jose

THERE is no shortage of workers. There is a shortage of willingness on the part of employers to train new and existing workers.

I'm not talking about sending people back to college to get their engineering degrees. I'm talking about what used to be routine, in-house training. Competent, willing employees are passed over because companies are no longer willing to hire them and then train them.

For example, technical writers are required to know how to use a tool called FrameMaker. Any competent, computer-literate writer can learn to use it on the job in a couple of weeks while keeping up with his regular duties. OK, he won't be the group expert for a while, but he should be producing on the first day and up to speed in a week or two.

Instead, before hiring technical writers, employers require them to have prior professional experience using FrameMaker. Taking a class or learning it on their own is not enough. If they didn't use it on their last job, they are out of luck.

The same principle applies to a whole host of resume buzzwords: relational databases, HTML, networking software, Windows NT. Technologies come and go, but the reality remains the same.

We live in a world where today's hot technology can quickly become tomorrow's dead end. Engineering professionals must constantly struggle to update their skills and adapt to new technologies. But employers have to do their part as well, especially before they cry wolf and complain that society isn't providing them with enough skilled workers. Where was their worker shortage in 1992-93 when they were downsizing millions of workers and amassing billions in profits?

-- Mike Bechler
Palo Alto