Collaboration

The IT worker shortage: An interview with Ernst Volgenau, president and CEO of SRA

The Internet brings with it the demand for even more IT workers. But will the supply of IT workers ever match the demand? In an interview, SRA CEO Ernst Volgenau says it won't happen for a long time.


Everyone in IT is suffering through a labor shortage that leaves key positions unfilled for long periods of time. How long will this shortage last? Ernst Volgenau, president and CEO of SRA International, Inc., has an answer, but you probably won’t like it.
Ernst Volgenau is the president and CEO of SRA International, Inc ., a consulting and system integration company that serves the government and the commercial sector. He has a master’s degree in electrical engineering and a Ph.D. in engineering from UCLA. His early career was spent in the Air Force where he worked on space boosters and satellite development. He also taught engineering, computer systems, operations research, and astronautics at UCLA, American University, and George Washington University. He later worked for the U.S. Secretary of Defense on large-scale weapon systems and command structure analysis. In the 1970s, he moved into software and database development, and served as an IT program manager. He retired from the Air Force as a colonel in 1976. He then became director of inspection and enforcement in the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, where he managed the inspection of commercial nuclear power plants. In 1978, he founded SRA International. Volgenau is also chair of the Information Technology Association of America’s Workforce and Education Committee, which, among other things, compiles information on the IT labor shortage.
The challenge of recruiting and retention
TR: You started SRA in 1978, and you now have more than 1,900 employees. In the midst of this fast growth, what sorts of challenges have you encountered?
Volgenau: Well, the challenge is recruiting and retention. There is, of course, a shortage of IT professionals in the core specialties, like computer science, programmers, analysts, and computer engineers. Various studies indicate that somewhat more than 10 percent of the available positions in these specialties are open. So there’s a 10 percent vacancy rate, if you will, that companies cannot fill because information technology is growing too rapidly; at least it has been growing faster than the supply.

TR: Are all your employees IT workers?
Volgenau: No, not all of them are IT workers, but most of them have IT functions. Our people have to know a lot about the business of our clients. They have to know about technology as well. We have people who are business experts and others who are technology experts. The business experts have to understand the strengths and weaknesses of IT.

The IT worker shortage
TR: Have you got some idea of how long this labor shortage will last?
Volgenau: I don’t think anyone knows, but let’s suppose there is not a recession within the next several years. Companies like GartnerGroup, Forrester Research, and International Data Corporation all have slightly different estimates. Let me speak first for the services industry of information technology—the consultants and system integrators and outsourcers, all those who are essentially selling the services of people rather than products. This industry is very people-intensive.

Projections are that the services business is growing at about 15 percent a year, but many of those projections don’t take into account the explosive growth of the Internet. I think that the Internet growth, some of it, is going to add to this.

So I think that the services business is going to grow substantially more than 15 percent a year, which is what it’s done over the past several years. Let’s suppose it grows 20 percent a year. Unless the supply grows at least that fast, then the shortage is going to persist. It’s probably also true for the products industry, because hardware and software sales are going to continue to grow. Therefore, the need for IT workers by those companies will grow. That’s why I don’t see an early end to this shortage, barring a recession or something that slows down growth.

TR: What are companies going to do? Outsource their IT functions?
Volgenau:
In the face of shortages, a lot of companies, and government agencies for that matter, simply cannot continue to recruit outstanding people. Their staffs tend to be smaller and narrower and, therefore, they outsource.

The outsourcers recruit, train, and retain people; the same goes for consultants and system integrators, who take on those additional functions and are better able to cope with it.

There’s no simple answer. They continue to intensively recruit. They do a lot more training than was done in the past. There’s a lot more cross training of people who didn’t have IT backgrounds, but who seem able to move closer to technology. They may not be programmers, but there are a lot of other things they can do that are IT-related. So there’s much more IT training going on. Then, of course, there’s the usual thing of paying more, offering higher salaries, bonuses, stock options.

On top of that, ITAA and other companies are trying to work with K-12 schools and community colleges and universities to increase the supply. There are days when a high-school child can go to an information technology company with one of the professionals and shadow. There’s more speaking in schools. SRA has adopted two elementary schools, not so much to increase the supply of IT professionals, but just to help out with the education system. We probably have well over 100 people who mentor the children and help them with their homework.

Communicating with a large staff in multiple locations
TR: How do you communicate with 1,900 employees in 10 locations?
Volgenau: Well, we use many channels, certainly as much as technology provides. We have a knowledge center and we put out a bulletin board, and we distribute most of our communications electronically. Everybody’s connected to our internal network. So we can reach anybody with an e-mail message and then an attached document, no matter what it is.

We put all of those documents on bulletin boards, and we publish regular news releases from within various parts of the company. We have a lot of face-to-face meetings. We call all-hands meetings, and at all those meetings we tell people the state of the company and we answer questions.

Dr. Volgenau’s career path
TR: What was your major in college, and how did you get from there to where you are now?
Volgenau: I am a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, and I studied electrical engineering there. I spent 20 years in the Air Force, and they sent me to get a Ph.D. in electrical engineering.

TR: What did you do in the Air Force?
Volgenau: I was mainly in research and development, the aerospace business in the 1960s, and then in the Pentagon large-scale systems analysis. I finished my 20 years in computer-supported logistics.

TR: Then you moved into the private sector?
Volgenau: Yes, I did. Well, I actually spent two years as head of inspection and enforcement at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission in Washington. I had about 700 engineers and other people who inspected all of the commercial nuclear power plants under construction and in operation in the United States. In those days, which was in the late 1970s, nuclear power was very controversial.

TR: And when you left that position, you…?
Volgenau: I started SRA International. I’ve always been interested in computers and management science and the application of technology to society. So I wanted to have a holistic company that could not only deal with the technology, but also address business problems.

TR: Did you have any mentors along the way, either in school or in business?
Volgenau: Yes, I did. I had many mentors and many role models. My father served in the Pacific in World War II. He was one of my heroes, and for that reason I went to the Naval Academy. At the Naval Academy, there were many leaders that I admired, and I really got thoroughly introduced to technology there. I became convinced that particularly information technology was the wave of the future. Throughout my career, there were always people that I admired, and they were gracious with their time. When I started my company, there were many people that gave me their advice.

Technology challenges
TR: Along the way, I’m sure you must have encountered some technology challenges.
Volgenau: Yes. I think our greatest challenge has been trying to align relatively primitive computers with the needs of society. Even today, computers are very hard to use. Computers ought to be our tools and not our masters.

As an engineer, I understand what information technology can be, but isn’t. I don’t mean to speak in riddles, but there is so much more that information technology can do for society and particularly for business that it’s not currently doing. So I believe the challenge has been to try to make information technology our servant. In other words, get computers and networks to better serve their customers.

It’s always been a challenge because the user interfaces were awful in the old days and are still pretty bad today. The ability of the computers to get information out of the vast amounts of data that they can access, make it intelligent, and make it useful to specific people is still not very good compared to what it could be.

TR: Is your company going to do something about that?
Volgenau: Well, we already are. Our company, SRA, is attacking this problem in several ways. First of all, it is the more conventional way. As a consultant and system integrator, our job is to understand the business of our customers. We then have to harness technology to solve those business problems.

We have learned over many years that you can’t start with the technology and tell people what wonderful tools we have because most people can’t relate to those tools. We need, in that process, to figure out how to convey to our customer what those tools can do to best solve his or her problem. Then, of course, we deliver that solution. That, by the way, is a rather conventional way because the best consultant and system integration companies do that in the way I just said.

The second way we’re doing is what I call data and text mining. As the Internet grows, the amount of data accessible to any one person becomes huge, and that data is of little use unless parts of it can be extracted that are relevant to a specific user. So one of the things that SRA does is to mine all of that data, and it doesn’t matter to us whether the data is in a structured database or whether it’s in a vast library of written text, like journals and periodicals and scientific reports. It doesn’t matter. We can find it and get it to that customer.
What are your worker-shortage woes? Feel free to tell us about them or to provide comments about this interview by posting a comment below. Also, send us a note if you have a CIO you’d like to see interviewed.

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