Missing the Target in the IT Job Hunt

With a plethora of employment opportunities in the IT field, why are so many job hunters coming up empty?
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A recent study by the Computing Technology Industry Association (CompTIA) has shown that in contrast to a four-year high in the national unemployment rate, the number of unfilled IT service and support positions has tripled since the surveyed companies reported numbers in 1999.

Yet qualified IT workers are not having an easy time finding jobs, and the root of this discrepancy is a complicated matter. The survey pinpoints a surplus of positions open in IT service and support positions, but the reality for developers and engineers is that they are having a hard time landing lucrative IT positions. From the educational institutions that are readying IT workers for the industry to the companies that have stringent hierarchical hiring processes, everyone involved, to different degrees, contributes to the lag in hiring IT professionals.

The process is flawed at all the levels, from the candidates writing the resumes, through the recruiters and HR departments and up to the managers that are looking to fill a position in their tech departments. For the unemployed or job-seeking IT worker trying to stay competitive in today's job market, whether one is a specialist or a generalist, it helps to understand how all the pieces fit together.

According to Ann Rosenblum, president of HR consultants Purpose in Being , there are multiple disconnections in the industry that lead to the discrepancy between the amount of IT workers in need of employment and the number of IT jobs that need to be filled.

The problem actually may have its beginnings in the schools that are training the IT workers. The schools are responding to the need for more trained professionals in specialized IT fields, but are they responding quick enough? Are they responding with the right kinds of courses to prepare technical workers for the reality of a market that can change faster than courses can be developed?

According to Rosenblum, educational institutions are often creating the lag by offering courses that are not realistic relative to market demands. "They will typically offer courses and certifications in technologies that are already outdated or for which there is already a glut of talent in the market, such as MCSE or HTML developers," she says.

Part of the problem is with the bureaucratic nature of higher education. It can take years for any new course to be added to a curriculum, especially in schools that are not primarily focused on the subject, such as technology, for which they are trying to develop a curriculum.

Schools also tend to look at their competition to determine how they fit into the education market. Instead of looking at the actual needs of fluctuating workplaces, they are looking at other schools and taking their direction from how they are lacking in comparison to competitive institutions.

Professor Thomas Skinner of Boston University's College of Engineering sees the situation a little differently. According to Skinner, it is essential to first understand the difference between what a university offers and what a technical school offers.

He agrees that training programs can easily fall behind because the technologies change so rapidly, but, he says, "one needs to look at the mandate of a university as opposed to a vocational training institution or other such educational unit." Universities prepare students for a lifelong experience while vocational institutions train students in specific technologies.

"Universities try to teach fundamentals that are essential to the field and are not likely to be supplanted by a new technology. For example, the emphasis on teaching programming is made on the fundamentals of programming, algorithms, and data structures, rather than on specific programming languages," Skinner says.

"We do need to include enough exposure to the current technologies to allow students to be useful when entering the job market, but we also need to be careful. If such technologies are taught predominantly from a user perspective, rather than from a more fundamental perspective, then we are not doing our job," he says. "Companies want to plug graduates right into working positions with as small a learning curve as possible. Unfortunately, students thus prepared might lack the more basic general knowledge to advance on their own without undergoing specific 'training.'"

Skinner focuses on one of the key problems. According to the CompTIA study, 51% of the CIOs surveyed indicated that independent IT industry association certification is important, and even though they ranked vendor-neutral certification as more important than vendor-specific, they are placing a great deal of emphasis on the certification.

The jobs that require the certifications are mainly service and administration jobs, and, according to Skinner, few graduating students want those positions. "They feel that they don't want to waste a four-year education on jobs that are more associated with vocational programs rather than college programs," he says.


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