A new study suggests that companies hiring information technology (IT) employees will be short about 850,000 people this year alone. Educators fear the growing IT shortage means that school districts won’t stand a chance in competing with businesses for qualified IT professionals.

The study, called “Bridging the Gap: Information Technology Skills for a New Millennium” and commissioned by the Information Technology Association of America (ITAA), finds an enormous demand for IT workers among large businesses.

The study says employers will need to hire roughly 1.6 million IT workers this year, but only half those positions will be filled. These numbers do not count government, nonprofit, or small business IT jobs.

Considering the IT industry is already 10 million people strong, the study means one in 12 IT jobs will remain open. This ratio has widened compared with a 1998 survey that reported one in 10 jobs was unoccupied.

“Our employers have known anecdotally for some time that hiring IT professionals was difficult,” said ITAA spokesperson Tinabeth Burton. This is the third and most comprehensive study commissioned by ITAA to date.

The results of “Bridging the Gap” are based on telephone interviews with a random sample of 700 IT managers from companies that make IT products and from companies that use IT products to facilitate their business operations.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that IT jobs will continue to be one of the fastest-growing sectors of the job market through 2006.

“It is very difficult to hire and retain IT workers,” Burton said. “It sounds basic, but the competition is fierce.”

Private companies frequently pay experienced IT professionals six-figure salaries in addition to benefits and time off. According to Information Week’s salary survey of nearly 17,000 IT professionals, the lowest average IT wage starts at $50,000.

Since districts have made huge investments in their schools’ technology, they now require full-time staff to support and maintain their infrastructures. But for districts operating on tight budgets, recruiting and retaining skilled people is a tough process.

Ray Jaksa, director of technology at Mansfield Independent School District in Texas, has experienced this problem first-hand.

“We cannot find qualified network people,” Jaksa said. “Even though we are offering 226 [work] days compared with 261, we can’t get people to come work for us. The most I can pay anyone in my department is $78,000—that’s more money than I make,” he said.

Reinventing the hiring process

To compete with the private sector for IT professionals, school districts must employ creative ways of recruiting and retaining high-tech workers, experts agree.

Lee Pasquarella, president of Cascade Consulting Group, a headhunting firm, advises school districts to reinvent their hiring practices when recruiting technology staff.

“School districts are not able to compete for IT professionals on the basis of salary,” Pasquarella said.

Because many IT jobs are filled with heavy deadlines and lots of stress, Pasquarella suggests school districts should emphasize nonmonetary benefits such as stability, quality of life, time off, flexible hours, slower-paced work environment (compared with the corporate world), good medical coverage, and more opportunities for professional growth.

“Not everyone is driven by money and those are the people you need to recruit,” Pasquarella said.

Fred Frelow, director of national affairs at the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, agrees that emphasizing the nobility of education is a good leveraging point for attracting IT workers.

“People who go into education don’t go into it for the money,” Frelow said. “If you work in a school where you help tens of thousands of kids, the benefits you make are different than when you make ‘x’ amount of dollars.”

Joe Kitchens, superintendent of Western Heights School District in Oklahoma, said his district hasn’t had many problems recruiting IT professionals—but he admits retaining them is difficult.

“If a company decides they want someone, it’s hard for us to compete,” Kitchens said. “We want someone who loves education.”

Pasquarella said schools should find other ways to attract IT workers besides high salaries. “School districts can be very competitive if they position themselves as places to get training,” he said.

The Blue Valley School District in Kansas pays its staff to become Microsoft-certified and then contractually obligates them to the district for two years.

“If we can keep someone for two or three years, they begin to see the benefits of working with our organization,” said Bob Moore, Blue Valley’s director of instructional technology.

Many school districts are starting to give their own students IT training, so they can work for the schools as a class credit or a part-time job.

The Mansfield school district is planning to teach Cisco networking skills to its high school students so they can do computer work for the district. But Jaksa acknowledged that this will create only temporary help.

“Once they’re certified, they’re not going to stay here,” Jaksa said.

In fact, he calls training the kiss of death.

“It’s a Catch-22. If you train them, they leave. If you don’t train them, they leave,” Jaksa said. “When they [corporate recruiters] find out we have a teacher teaching Cisco, how long is that person going to stay?”

Moore said the Blue Valley School District experienced a shortage of IT workers in the past, but after making improvements it’s been easier to recruit and retain them.

“We can’t compete dollar for dollar for IT staff, but we think you can get other things with us you can’t get elsewhere,” Moore said.

The district now offers flexibility, more vacation time, job-sharing, salary increases, training, teamwork, and decision-making.

“It has been over a year since anyone has left our organization,” Moore said.

Information Technology Association of America

http://www.itaa.org

Mansfield Independent School District

http://www.mansfieldisd.org

National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future

http://www.tc.columbia.edu/~teachcomm

Western Heights School District

http://www.westernheights.k12.ok.us

Blue Valley School District

http://www.bluevalleyk12.org