Businesses nationwide are struggling to find tech-savvy workers who can help them compete in the digital era. Or at least, that’s the impression one may get from all the white papers and articles that have been written about the so-called tech skills gap over recent years. In practice, however, it turns out that the situation is much more nuanced.
A recent report by Forrester paints an outright encouraging picture of the technical labor market. The publicly-traded research firm compared graduate data from the Department of Education with job creation numbers and found that universities produce more technology majors than businesses can hire.
The talent pool grows even bigger when taking into account self-taught professionals. This group constitutes a large portion of the workforce in certain areas, most notably programming. Earlier this year, popular developer site Stack Overflow polled over 64,000 of its users and found less than half of those who reported to being professional programmers have an advanced degree. The percentage who majored in computer science is smaller still.
Andrew Bartels, a co-author of the Forrester study, wrote in an Forbes article that the picture painted by these findings is supported by a key statistic: wage growth. He detailed that the average annual increase in mean salaries for the most sought-after tech professions is below 3 percent, while the national average stands at 2 percent.
With that said, there are still shortages in needed technology skills that can be felt throughout large swaths of the business world. It’s just that that they’re spread out over different places, as opposed to being a systematic issue affecting the job market as a whole.
Forrester highlights two areas in particular where the skills gap is especially pronounced. First, the research firm sees talent shortages outside major tech hubs such as Silicon Valley, which covers the area in which most companies are based. Second, Bartels noted that there’s active competition over mobile developers and other professionals with highly coveted technical skills. It’s often an issue for small businesses, since they can’t always match the offers of large enterprises seeking the same talent as they do.
But while certain positions may be harder to fill than others, it’s not necessarily an accurate reflection of the labor market. Andrew Weaver, an assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, recently shed some light on the situation by conducting a series of “nationally representative skill surveys” to see how various fields are affected. He detailed in column on the MIT Technology Review that talent shortages are not always caused by a lack of available candidates.
Take helpdesk technicians, for example. Weaver wrote that the qualification most consistently associated with hiring difficulties isn’t something specific to the profession, but rather high-level writing skills. The big lesson to be learned is that recruitment challenges must be viewed in the specific context of every profession to form a truly accurate picture.
The practical effect
All these recent findings are good news for businesses. The absence of a deep-rooted, nationwide shortage in tech skills means that it’s not always necessary to sign on a pricey recruitment agency when a technical position opens up. Moreover, Weaver’s research shows that even openings which do prove difficult to fill may simply require a change in strategy. When candidates are rejected on the basis of not being able to write clearly enough or lacking experience with a particular business application, providing in-house training may be the most efficient solution.
Training is also emerging as a key priority at the market level. All the talk about the skills gap in recent years has contributed to the rise of new initiatives aimed at equipping more workers with needed technical expertise.
Last month, Google launched a $1 billion program designed to bring more Americans into fields such as mobile development and technical support. Around the same time, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak announced a similar education initiative bearing the name “Woz U”. Over time, such industry efforts could significantly expand the talent pool upon which businesses can draw in key technical fields.