Monday, June 4, 2012

Skills Shortage

The Time Magazine has a recent article on Skills Shortage written by a Wharton professor. The key take-away is that businesses are leaving vacancies open due to lack of interest in training employees, matching pay with market demands, and other reasons unrelated to candidates' actual lack of knowledge. I've considered this phenomenon at length. One example of lack of interest in training the article had was an opening for a cotton candy machine operator which demanded considerable experience in successful cotton candy machine operation. My personal favorite, from my own observations, was a Craigslist job ad from 2007 for an iPhone app developer with 5+ years of iPhone dev experience. Considering that the iPhone had been released for barely a few weeks, I presume that 5 years would be hard to come by even from the original iPhone engineers themselves. This brings me to the main subject: job training is a real problem these days. Businesses don't want to invest in training because the days of stable, long-term employment is long gone. Young employees move from job to job. Employers don't feel to responsibility to employees they used to when mass layoffs and restructuring are the norm.

Modern businesses have a lot of choices. They can outsource, offshore, and automate quickly and easily to control costs and to appeal to investors. On the employee side, the improvements have not been as dramatic. Technology has made it somewhat easier for individuals to freelance and to find gigs from a much larger pool of gigs. Still, once a person's job is eliminated, options are limited. What happens if the person is very proactive and wants to seek retraining. There is a lot of for-profit colleges and schools marketing themselves to this crowd, hoping to profit from the government's largesse directed at retraining of the workforce. The results are mixed at best. The costs are considerable and the job prospects for those training programs are hazy. Theoretically, these job seekers can also try the bevy of online training offerings such as Udacity and Codecademy. Yet, when I try to match those offerings and job requirements in postings, there is a considerable disconnect. Businesses are looking for some fairly specific sets of skills. In software engineering, this may mean is very specific development stack and lots of buzzwords. In recent years, the development stack ecosystem has become so diversified, a lot of these requirements are honestly starting to border on the esoteric and unrealistic. A good software engineer can quickly pick up new technologies. Is it realistic to filter for only those who somehow ended up experimenting with just the set of JavaScript frameworks and NoSQL solution that you ended up choosing, probably through some haphazard process?

I consider the question of whether universities are producing competent programmers in an on-going series of posts based on my reading of studies and research on the subject.

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