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The Digital Work Force

The Department of Commerce has released a special report outlining the effects of the digital age on the workplace and recommending steps business, government and educational institutions should take to address the growing need for information technology workers. We've included the report's executive summary (below) as a quick guideline to the challenges and proposed solutions. If you find the summary of interest, be sure to download the entire report from the Department of Commerce's web site. It's available in PDF format at

The Digital Work Force:
Building Infotech Skills at the Speed of Innovation
Executive Summary

The digital work force challenge has been the subject of much debate among representatives of industry (who believe there is a "shortage" of information technology (IT) workers), employee groups (who believe adequate numbers of highly trained technical professionals are available) and economists (who argue that market forces will take care of any problem). Each of these perspectives has merit, but the true nature of the challenge is more complex than any of these views individually. The challenge is driven by the unique nature of information technology and its pervasive role throughout the U.S. economy and our society.

This report discusses the impact of rapid creation and adoption of IT on the U.S. economy, describes the demand and supply trends for core IT occupations, discusses the business environment and its impact on the IT labor market, and proposes steps key stakeholders can take to address the challenge. Key findings and conclusions are:

Demand for core IT workers is strong and growing. For more than 15 years, employment in the core IT occupations -- computer scientists and engineers, systems analysts, and computer programmers -- has grown six times faster than the overall U.S. job growth rate. The growth for computer scientists and systems analysts has accelerated in recent years, increasing at an annual rate of 16.4 percent.

From 1996 to 2006, it is projected that the United States will require more than 1.3 million new highly-skilled IT workers in these occupations. About 1,134,000 workers will be needed to fill newly created jobs and approximately 240,000 will be needed to replace workers who are leaving these fields.

The impact of the digital work force challenge varies from industry to industry. The computer and data processing services industry -- which consists of many companies that focus on the development of software and services, or IT projects under contract for other firms -- has much at stake because it employs the greatest number of core IT workers. In 1996, the CDPS industry employed 26.9 percent of all core IT workers. By 2006, the CDPS industry is projected to employ nearly two out of every five core IT workers (39.3 percent).

By 2006, California, Texas and Virginia are projected to have the largest core IT work forces. These states also lead the country in the average number of core IT job openings between 1996 and 2006.

Oregon, Georgia and Colorado top the list of states with the fastest growing cadre of core IT workers between 1996 and 2006. Oregon is projected to triple its core IT work force, while the core IT work force in Colorado and Georgia is projected to double in size.

There is evidence pointing to a tight labor market for highly skilled IT workers -- such as rapid growth in highly-skilled IT occupations, low unemployment rates and rising salaries, with some worker salaries reportedly rising significantly. However, due to the limitations of available data, there is no way to establish conclusively whether there is, or is not, an overall IT worker shortage.

IT labor markets are complex and dynamic. Supply and demand characteristics vary by industry segment, by IT occupation, and by specific skills. Short product life cycles, and the variety of software and hardware products and their applications, together with the differing business requirements of different industry sectors, have created demand for workers with various combinations of IT skills, experience, and industry knowledge -- expressed often by employers as needing "the right person with the right skills at the right time." Time-sensitive competitive pressures and the need for employees with various combinations of technical skills, business skills, and hands-on experience have led many employers, especially those for whom IT is their core business, to pursue "buy" decisions in this labor market rather than "make" decisions (to hire, then train for the task).

There is no single path to prepare a worker for a core IT job. Most get their education from four-year colleges. Other paths include two-year degree-granting community colleges, special university/community college one-year programs designed to upgrade the skills of current IT workers, private sector certification programs, in-house company training, computer user groups, Internet forums, and company-sponsored help sites. Two-thirds of all workers in core IT occupations hold a bachelors-level degree or higher; 26 percent have less than a four-year degree; and six percent have a high school diploma or less. Of those with degrees, 46 percent have IT degrees, minors or second majors; 86 percent have a degree in a science or engineering discipline.

Americans can meet the digital work force challenge. Markets are responding to the growing demand for IT workers in many ways. For example:

After years of declining enrollments, four-year college enrollment rates are increasing in IT-related disciplines. In the past three years, bachelor-level enrollments in leading computer science and computer engineering programs more than doubled.

A significant and growing training infrastructure is emerging. Community colleges are responding to the need for increased IT training, and proprietary training and IT certification programs are growing in number and popularity. Many workers are now able to qualify for low to medium-skilled IT jobs through such programs.

Corporations are increasing on-the-job training and forming industry-education- community partnerships to expand IT education at all levels.

States and regional organizations have begun to develop a variety of strategies for attracting and developing people with IT skills.

Many factors affect the supply and quality of IT workers. These include a poor image of the IT profession, lack of career information and encouragement for students, the need for increased competency in math and science, challenges in the IT teaching infrastructure, and failure to attract underrepresented groups to the profession.

Key Recommendations

The resounding conclusion from our nationwide dialogue is that there is no "silver bullet" solution to the IT work force challenge. Rather, the answer lies in many stakeholders undertaking a wide range of initiatives, both large and small. Most of the suggestions for key stakeholders presented in this report provide actions well within the reach of individual stakeholders in the business, government and education communities.

Businesses should:

Support and develop national information and advertising campaigns to improve the image of the technical professions, and communicate the portfolio of skills needed to thrive in the new economy.

Form consortia or collaborate in other ways to reduce the cost and risk of incumbent worker training. Businesses -- acting alone or in partnership with education, government and other stakeholders -- should assess IT training needs, develop curricula, train current or prospective employees, and develop ways to help employees get experience in applying the technical skills they acquire through training.

Consider expanding resources for employees to participate in training programs. Businesses could provide scholarships, low interest loans, or time off work for employees participating in training.

Companies that certify training providers--such as Microsoft, Novell, and Cisco--should work closely with national, regional, and specialized accrediting agencies to ensure accreditation of their training providers so that students can qualify for federal financial aid.

Tap into non-traditional labor pools, including older workers, mid-career scientists and engineers, recent college graduates trained in non-IT disciplines, and women and minorities.

Partner with universities and community colleges to improve curricula quality, timeliness and value, and develop programs that meet employers' changing IT education and training needs.

Where needed, consider funding and other support to relieve pressure on university and community colleges' IT teaching infrastructure. This includes strategies to recruit, retain and maintain skills' currency of faculty.

Increase the quality of K-12 science and math teaching through mechanisms such as funding stipends, internships, or scholarships for teachers in math and science; helping defray the cost of qualified technology teachers; encouraging greater teacher involvement with industry; and increasing in-kind contributions of equipment and personnel to the educational system.

Encourage technical workers to get involved in local school systems by providing time off during working hours (or other means) to teach, mentor, or work on science and engineering projects with students.

Provide hands-on opportunities for students to gain real-world experience with high technology industry and technical careers.

Universities and Community Colleges should:

Work together with industry and government to support and develop national information and advertising campaigns to improve the image of the technical professions, and communicate the portfolio of skills needed to thrive in the new economy.

To encourage incumbent worker training, create greater flexibility in IT training, including offering shorter courses, increasing the variety of course times and locations, and expanding the use of teletraining.

Examine the adequacy of the teaching infrastructure for four-year and two-year IT-related degree programs (seats, equipment and faculty).

Retain qualified IT teachers through competitive pay and other benefits. Faculty who obtain IT certifications should be rewarded for their achievement as a way to retain them in teaching.

Find much faster ways to upgrade curricula through regular surveys of skills needs, ongoing dialogue with IT business leaders and technical professionals, and more monitoring of the business environment and technological trends.

Bring faculty to industry through summer internships and sabbaticals, rotation programs, and through exchange programs for industry and university scientists and engineers. Encourage faculty to establish relationships with counterparts in high technology industries.

To improve the education of K-12 teachers, encourage collaborations between schools of education and college math, science and engineering departments. Create and implement IT curricula in schools of education.

Develop partnerships between science and technology departments, and business schools to provide business majors and MBAs with technical skills, and offer people graduating in non-IT fields some courses in IT.

Provide hands-on opportunities for students to gain real-world experience in high technology industry and technical careers. Bring professionals with real-world experience into the classroom at all levels.

Aggressively recruit women and minority faculty for science and technology programs at the K-12 and college levels.

Governments should:

Improve data collection on the supply and demand of highly skilled IT workers, and factors affecting the IT labor market.

Work with individuals, businesses, associations, academia and the media to support and develop national information and advertising campaigns to improve the image of the technical professions, and communicate the portfolio of skills needed to thrive in the new economy.

Promote government scientists and engineers as role models and publicize the exciting diversity and value of their work.

State governments should consider expanding student opportunities by working with business and academia to fund scholarships for high school students, college students, or current workers who commit to working for a contributing company or within states or regions where the need for IT workers is growing.

Consider incentives to increase the number of qualified science and technology teachers in the K-12 grades.

Support, through special educational programs, mentoring, outreach and other means, greater participation of women, underrepresented minorities and disabled people in the IT work force.

Consider incentives to reduce the cost and risk to industry of incumbent worker training in order to stimulate increased industry investment. For example, governments could provide matching funds to organize and encourage cooperation among firms in developing industry-led skills alliances, as well as participate in alliances as employers in areas where IT workers are need to fill government jobs.

Review government supported training programs and contract training providers to ensure they are aligned with employer needs, growing career areas, and job markets in which they operate.

Work together with business and educators to provide K-12 students, especially middle school students, with information on science and technology careers, their rewards, and what education and training are necessary to pursue them.

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