Tech & Work

Study finds that IT is still solid, despite troubled economy

You've heard the bad news about the economy. But how bad is it, really, for IT workers? We'll tell you about the results of a recent study from the Information Technology Association of America that may surprise you.

By now, we’ve all heard about it, read about it, possibly paced the floor at night worrying about it: Any news about the economy for the last few months has been mostly bad. But there may be a reason to relax a bit: Despite the fact that the economy is indeed cooling down and companies are still laying off people with frightening predictability, the IT market remains solid, or at least so says a recent study called “Building Better Information Technology Skills and Careers” conducted by the Information Technology Association of America (ITAA), an Arlington, VA, trade organization representing the IT industry. In this article, we’ll take a closer look at the study’s findings, and I’ll pass along the evaluations of the study by a couple of industry experts.

Can it be trusted?
The full opus is 52 pages long, but you can read the executive summary on the ITAA Web site ( The fact that this study reports good news for IT might lead you to take it at face value, but most studies should be approached skeptically, and this one is no different. Paul Ladson, area manager and head of the IT group of Manpower Professional, a division of Manpower International, an international staffing company, said the study was “pretty well put together” but it “seemed more like a marketing tool than anything else.” That’s not surprising when you consider that its sponsors are giant IT companies, like American Management Systems (AMS), Cisco Systems, Hall Kinion, Intel, ITT Educational Services, Microsoft, and SRA International. An IT expert and educator, who insisted upon anonymity, agreed with Ladson, adding he was skeptical about the objectivity of ITAA given its strong political agenda.

An obvious problem with the ITAA study is figuring out whose needs it is addressing. ITAA spokesperson Bob Cohen says it’s meant for employers and academic communities as well as job seekers. “One of the study’s goals is to create better dialogue between employers and IT workers,” said Cohen. That’s questionable, however, since it’s doubtful that techies are going to shell out 75 bucks for a survey that’s hardly a revealing proclamation on the state of the IT industry in 2001.

The study was based on telephone interviews with 685 line managers. Respondents were randomly selected from a population of 320,000 for-profit firms in the United States that have more than 50 employees. Of the respondents, 191 participants work for IT companies; 494 participants work for non-IT firms.

Some findings
The national IT workforce numbers 10.4 million. Because of a slowdown in the high-tech sector and in the general economy, demand for IT workers is off 44 percent from last year. Still, companies project 900,000 new jobs in 2001. Nearly half (425,000) will go unfilled because of a lack of applicants with the necessary technical and nontechnical skills. Despite the drop in demand, however, IT employment continues to increase, year to year.

The structure of the IT job market has also changed. Demand for IT professionals is more evenly distributed across the professional spectrum—good news for high-end pros. Technical support, network designer/administrator, and software engineer continue to be strong categories. In fact, network design/administration is one of a few categories showing an increase in demand (up 13 percent), while the strongest growth is in enterprise systems (up 62 percent).

Decreasing demand plagues several categories, including technical writing (down 73 percent), digital media (down 62 percent), and database development/administration (down 59 percent). Companies are even pulling back on Web development, which is expected to drop 25 percent this year.

Retention issues
Non-IT companies keep their employees longer than IT companies. This is especially true of enterprise system professionals. This category of worker had the highest retention rate among non-IT companies but the lowest retention rate among IT companies. Technical writers are most likely to stay on the job at IT companies.

A good overall compensation plan was cited as the most important retention tool by both IT and non-IT companies. Other important issues are workplace flexibility and frequent reviews and raises. Stock options ranked last in importance.

The geographic distribution of the nation’s IT workforce remains largely unchanged from 2000. The South boasts the largest number of IT workers, with almost 3.6 million. The Midwest is again the second-largest regional IT employer, with just over 3 million, followed by the West and Northeast. The Northeast had the largest proportional increase in IT workers, posting almost 5 percent annual growth. All other regions experienced 4 percent growth. The South gained the largest number of IT workers: 142,673.

IT positions were organized into the following eight job categories:
  • Programmer/software developer
  • Enterprise information systems integrator
  • Database administrator/developer
  • Interactive digital media specialist
  • Web administrator
  • Technical writer
  • Network systems specialist
  • Computer systems support representative

That’s a quick summation of the study’s findings. Yet, experts like Ladson and Dennis Scheil, president of Base 8 Systems, Inc., a consulting and technical training company in Princeton, NJ, found many loopholes in the ITAA study. Ladson cites the small sample size. “I doubt that they tapped enough people,” he says. The Manpower executive wonders why salary information for IT workers wasn’t included. Lastly, the study’s projection of the IT job market for 2001 was an inaccurate picture of the entire country. “The study cites continued demand for IT workers throughout 2001,” says Ladson. “I’m not seeing that in Northern California. There are more IT people than there are IT jobs.”

Scheil had problems with the breakdown of IT jobs. “Network design and administration” is a truly bizarre category, he says. “The difference in both skill sets and the experience of a network designer/architect and a network administrator makes it hard to believe that they would be lumped together and seriously skews any validity of the data,” he explains. “Even the term ‘network administration’ covers a wide range of tasks from the simple adding of users and changing of passwords to the complex monitoring of network availability, health, and capacity. It seems impossible to draw general conclusions about a category with such a wide range of skill and experience requirements.”

The programming/software engineering category has far too much range, according to Scheil. “Are we talking about applications programming, systems programming, operating system kernel programming, or process control device programming? The differences in required skill sets are enormous, and there is also a great disparity between the needs of IT companies vs. non-IT companies.” Yet he says that the "tech support" and "technical writing" categories are concise and provide valid information as to the skills required for job seekers and the appropriate retention approaches.

Finally, Scheil was bothered that the study did not mention the effect of the H1B visa program on the IT employment market. “How much of the reduction in unfilled positions is due to the increased number of foreign workers in the United States as a result of H1B?“ he asked.

I’ve covered only a few highlights from this wordy study. Although it does point to some interesting observations and changes from last year, the question is whether it will provide job searchers with any startling insights.

How is the IT job market in your area?
Give us some feedback on your local IT job market. Is your organization adding positions, cutting, or keeping steady? What does the future look like in your field? In your region? Post a comment below.


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