Help wanted: Talented information technology workers in high demand

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Sunday, December 9, 2007
— It seemed that everywhere Eric McLean turned, he was met with a job offer in the neighborhood of $50,000 a year.

With one solid proposal on the table and decision deadline looming, the UW-Whitewater student got a call from another prospective employer.

“I had my interview on Friday and an offer by Monday,” said McLean, who accepted the offer and will report for work in January as a programmer analyst associate at Harley-Davidson in Milwaukee.

McLean’s situation reflects an information technology industry that some trade journals have said is facing a hiring crisis. Quite simply, the demand for talented IT workers outweighs the supply, and students such as McLean are commanding exceptional starting salaries.

Demand for IT employees is the highest it’s been in five years, according to Robert Half Technology, a leading provider of IT professionals on a project and full-time basis.

The reason is three-fold:

** Because of industrywide growth—the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates nearly one million IT jobs will be created by 2014.

** Baby boomers in the field are starting to retire.

** Fewer college students are choosing to major in computer science, engineering and math to refill the ranks.

For evidence of the latter, look no further than UW-Whitewater’s Management Computer Systems program, which has been ranked as the top four-year computing degree program in the United States and Canada eight times by the Association of Information Technology Professionals.

“We used to graduate 80 to 90-plus students each year,” said Robert Horton, coordinator of the MCS program. “This year, we’ll graduate 26.”

One of those is McLean, a Two Rivers native who will pick up his diploma in a couple of weeks.

“It’s a good problem for us because there are lots of opportunities, but it’s a bad problem for the companies,” he said.

On a national level, UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute reported that the number of incoming freshmen who planned to major in computer science fell by 70 percent between 2000 and 2005.

That’s due in part to the dotcom bust several years ago, Horton said.

“Parents and counselors have been telling students that there’s no future in information technology,” he said. “It seems like everybody knows someone or has heard of someone laid off in the field.”

Another fear, he said, centers on the belief that IT jobs are prime for outsourcing.

“The fact is that there have never been more IT jobs in this country,” Horton said. “We outsource less than 4 percent of them, and for those we do lose, we’re adding more in this country.

“Just look around; people are immersed in technology. How could anyone think that we won’t need people to keep that going?”

UW-Whitewater has run nearly 1,600 middle and high school students through recent information technology fairs in the Milwaukee area.

“The idea was to bring in a Harley-Davidson and show the kids how to design a motorcycle on the computer, bring in an Aurora Health Care and show the kids how IT applies to health care,” Horton said.

A separate event targeted the students’ counselors.

“Their jaws just dropped,” Horton said. “They were under the mistaken belief that IT was not a good field to go into.”

Horton said companies are starting to feel the pain of a lack of students entering the field.

Robert Half’s annual salary survey backs that up, as IT professionals in the United States can expect starting salaries to increase an average of 5.3 percent in 2008.

“Business expansion and the increased reliance on technology within all sectors has resulted in a competitive environment for skilled IT professionals,” said Katherine Spencer Lee, executive director of Robert Half Technology. “Many companies are raising base compensation for new hires and offering additional perks, including signing bonuses and equity incentives, to recruit and retain top candidates.”

In the last three years, starting annual salaries for Whitewater’s MCS grads have risen nearly 9 percent to $46,000, Horton said. In the networking degree area, they’re up more than 26 percent to $48,000.

“The expertise is retiring, and we’re going back to the days when these kids were like gold,” he said.

Last updated: 11:38 am Thursday, December 13, 2012

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