Good help is hard to find. I hear this all the time. I can't think of a sector whose firms don't claim to be suffering from a lack of qualified applicants. Paradoxically, college grads almost universally report frustration in obtaining a satisfying job out of college these days. Yeah, OK then; so what's the deal?
I was involved in a meeting today involving various higher-ups in technology companies, state agencies, and economic development interests. The topic of discussion was this: How to develop, retain, and attract high-tech talent. A re-occurring theme emerged. There is a frustration within industry (and spilling into the public sector), that the community colleges and universities need to do a better job of preparing graduates for the today's job market. Three examples were offered that stick in my mind:
(1) A manager of a software development division of an automotive company lamented that he can't find entry-level programmers. It should be very easy to train the kinds of workers he needs. He doesn't need coders with graduate level (or even bachelor level) experience. He HAS coders that can write and modify software code. All he needs is some people with a basic level of software knowledge to test the prototype systems for bugs. This, he believes, should require only an Associate's or trade degree in software debugging or something similar. There is a notable gap in this talent pool.
(2) Another engineering manager of an automotive company does need high-level engineering talent for entry positions: Bachelor's, Master's, Ph.D.'s, all. Michigan's universities pump out engineering talent like no other place in the world. But still, qualified applicants are few and far between. So many engineers have managed to slip through the cracks without cultivating elementary communication skills. They have difficulty working across groups, their formal reports are nearly nonsensical, even their emails are haphazard and confusing. All he needs is a few engineers that can write a report that isn't comprised of run-on sentences. Universities are not training engineering students to explain their work or understand broader business implications.
(3) An engineering supervisor from a county road commission is looking to hire an entry-level "Traffic and ITS Engineer." The managing engineer reported incredulously that while every candidate was pretty well familiar with the general concepts of traffic engineering, half of them "didn't even know what the acronym 'ITS' stands for!" (sic*) University-level traffic engineering programs need to catch up with today's technology.
I listened to each story with honest sympathy. During the meeting, I silently contributed to the emerging consensus; our education system is failing students and industry. We need to refocus on job training across the education system!
It was only with the quiet reflection unique to a homeward-bound commute that I revisited these parables with clarity: These hiring managers are insane. If these stories are typical of common approaches to hiring for technology-sector jobs, the friction in this labor market is endemic to the capricious expectations of the employers, not the whortcomings of workforce development or talent in the labor pool. Let's revisit thee three sob-stories in sequence:
1. The software development manager who doesn't need super high-skilled talent; he just needs community colleges to train acute software bug-finders: From this man's perspective, when 99% of a programs software code is assembled, his development budget should be nearly 99% spent. It's just the last loose ends that need tying up. Surely some blue-collar programmers can get this done.
I don't know to what extent this team manager is capable of programming. My guess is none. I've tried to become even a novice at working with code and have basically failed. Debugging near-perfect code is every bit as difficult, and maybe more so, than writing it from scratch. This manager has a dream that he can hire individuals with a skill that is very much in demand and otherwise treat them as semi-skilled labor compensated on par with traditional community-college associate's degrees and trade programs.
Sorry guy, it doesn't work that way. The reason you are not satisfied with the programming labor market is not because there aren't enough able debuggers, it is because you don't seem to know what goes into completing the projects you've been tasked with overseeing. You can't pay code debuggers like janitors.
2. The manager who needs engineers with communication skills: I'm not sure of the technical ability of this manager. My sense is that he was trained as an engineer, but so long ago that his formal education has been effectively dissociated with current technologies. (I also question his communication skills.) I gather that a primary component of this man's job is to communicate the importance of his division's work to higher-ups in the company. He thinks this job is hard. He is frustrated because he doesn't completely understand the technology his division is working on, and he's having trouble explaining the significance and potential of his project to Corporate. He would really like his lead engineers to be able to explain the precise status and potential of the project with clarity, so that he can concentrate on the "big-picture" tasks that he considers the more crucial part of his job.
This man's job is not hard. He may have had a difficult job years ago, but he was promoted. Engineering is hard. Innovative engineering is killer. His team understands the technology they are working on better than anyone else in the world, save possibly a couple dozen engineers working for competitors. These high-level R&D engineers and research scientists probably aren't prone to poetic prose. So be it. We would never ask an English-composition major to understand differential equations.
3. The county road commission engineering manager who can't believe graduates don't know the initialism for "ITS:" She does make a valid point. The job description that she was hiring for did have ITS in the title (at least, she implied that). A prudent candidate probably should have Googled "ITS traffic engineer" before going on the interview. OK, so that caveat aside, this is an extremely random question by which to disqualify candidates.
In my perfect world, the first interviewee asked this question would answer, 'No. What is ITS?' Given the answer (Intelligent Transportation System), the interviewee would inquire in earnest, 'What does that mean?'
While the initialism is trivial to memorize, the underlying concept is nebulous and ultimately useless. It's also false on its face or at least idiomatic; I doubt many ITS professionals would argue that these systems have achieved "intelligence" using any common definition of the term. ITS is an invented and non-specific category used to separate those that have declared themselves to be ITS professionals from those that are not, and to confuse and confound those who may otherwise ask follow-up questions regarding what, exactly, it is that ITS professionals do. I know this because, as a "Transportation Systems Analyst," I am an expert on ITS. I learned the acronym about 20 months ago. This woman is disqualifying applicants for ignorance of an arbitrary piece of trivia.
My apologies to ITS professionals who truly are innovative and intelligent individuals contributing to the well-being of society as much as normal people can be expected to. Within the sector, ITS is a useful catch-all shorthand a foundational pillar of our shared language. (Though, if you were to cloister us in separate rooms, I guarantee our definitions would be hesitant, confused, and variable.) However, just because this convenient abstraction is casually accepted by those of us who've become indoctrinated to its conventional usage does not mean that the outside world, including potential recruits to the ITS profession, should be judged by their ignorance of the term.
Every industry has its initialisms, acronyms, abstractions, and heuristics. These things are convenient, partially, because they make communication within the industry more efficient. Just as important, they impose a barrier between the professional and the lay man. It's impossible for the uninitiated to understand what a professional whoever is talking about when speaking in industry slang and jargon. Specialized professions use such acronyms and idioms to establish the credibility and necessity of the profession to the rest of society. Scientists are really great at this. Lawyers are better. Drug dealers may be the best.
Anyways, hiring managers in any profession should have the self-awareness to recognize their role in this universal graft. Don't let your own jargon be a wall to those who would voluntarily join your little club. Throw down a damn ladder.
I gathered that the hiring engineer for the road commission immediately discounted every candidate who couldn't recite the long-form of the ITS initialism. Pity. If she would have subsequently asked something like, "what congestion-mitigation measures you are familiar with?" they may have enlightened her about the benefits and drawbacks of strategies like adaptive signal control, traveler information systems, and automated dispatch systems; all categories she would have robotically filed under ITS. In fact, it is ridiculous that a traffic engineer would graduate from a contemporary engineering curriculum without significant study in ITS systems, though perhaps without the taxonomical background.
The major flaw in these graduates--as far as this particular hiring manager is concerned--is that they were never properly taught the bullshit terminology that this particular cabal of professionals falls back on when they're confused. (Such data fusion would likely facilitate sustainable stakeholder consensus to collaborative synergy within an enterprise strategy.)
My point is this: there is no labor crisis in tech. Or maybe there is, I don't know, probably not. But these people have not had the chance to be stymied by it; they've been too busy manufacturing their own credentials and compensation crises. These hiring managers have unreasonable and/or arbitrary expectations regarding the entry-level labor market. Given their druthers, they would pay their knowledgeable and talented underlings as little as possible so that they might get a slightly larger bonus and impress the Vice-President of WhereverCorp. If employers need trained workers to fill jobs, they can afford to train them in-house. Corporate profits are at record highs across sectors. Just hire the smart kids and pay them when they're worth. They will figure out the rest just like everyone else did. Think of it as "going long" on your workforce.
We should know all this by now. This dynamic and criticism of the specialized labor force has probably existed since the division of labor. Dig this:
With great concern, spokesmen for engineers point to a decline in engineering graduates since 1950 as evidence that the country has turned its back on the technician... It is not my intention to dispute that we need more engineers... There has indeed been a shortage of engineers—but so has there been a shortage of almost every other kind of trained person too...
As we have seen, the most cursory check of enrollment figures would reveal that it is to the business schools...that the extra young men are going. If there are less engineers, one strong reason is that more young men want to grow up to be people who boss engineers,--and given the way business uses its technical people, the impulse isn't entirely misguided...
One solution that everyone seems to be getting enthusiastic about is the formalization of more "channels of communication" between industry and colleges. Businessmen have been showing much initiative in this; their organizations have been staging a number of industry-college conferences, and some corporations have been host to groups of professors at special summer seminars. Much of this has been worthwhile... Nonetheless I would like to offer a caveat. Of all our problems the businessman's complaints about the ivory tower's lack of esteem for business is one of our least pressing ones...(William Whyte, The Organization Man 1956.)
Whyte continues to describe, basically, a relationship between business and academia where businessmen pressure colleges to train a labor force full of technicians with enough of a remainder to assure that bargaining power rests with the firms. All the while, academics, trying to be helpful to their students and society writ large, quietly extoll the unpredictably shifting nature of the labor market and the value of a well-rounded education as a hedge against uncertainty wrought by an evolving global economy. This was written in nineteen-fifty-six. Can you believe it?
*Strictly speaking ITS is not an acronym. An acronym is an initialism pronounced as a word. For example, we initialize the Freedom of Information Act, FOIA, and pronounce it, "FOI-yah." If ITS were an acronym, our conversations would be confusing for everyone.