VOICES FROM THE INDUSTRY: Despite some perceptions, future for IT workers bright

May 12, 2008

In mid-March, Bill Gates traveled to Washington to carry an unpopular message to Congress: Raise the limits on visas for foreignborn tech workers, or Microsoft and other high-tech companies will be forced to move more jobs overseas in search of a skilled work force.

Gates' testimony to the House Committee on Science & Technology wasn't groundbreaking-the shortage of tech workers is well-documented. But it begs an obvious question: Why have computer science enrollments at U.S. colleges and universities fallen by almost half since 2000? Obviously, the dot-com bust has a lot to do with it, but in a soft economy, shouldn't students be more interested in these high-paying jobs?

Image problems

One problem is image. Information technology careers too often get "typecast" into a few predictable categories: Debugging software code, a la "Office Space," or driving a Geek Squad Volkswagen. But the bigger perception issue is that the U.S. IT industry is being exported offshore to places like India.

In reality, the domestic tech market is growing. IT employment in 2004 was actually 17-percent higher than it was during the peak of the dot-com boom in 1999, and job growth is projected to continue at a robust pace at least through 2014, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The reason is simple-the information technology sector is broad, diverse and an integral part of every segment of our economy. It's hard to imagine a modern company that doesn't use IT in some fashion.

Let's look at how technology is a critical catalyst for a few of Indiana's cornerstone industries, starting with the life sciences. The health and life science sector deals with a staggering volume of data-from the clinical histories of billions of medical patients to the billions of "bases" that make up the human genome.

High-speed computing has made it possible to analyze complex information quickly and comprehensively, whether it's modeling potential interactions among molecules or predicting patient reactions to medicines.

In the pharmaceutical industry, for example, 75 percent of the cost of bringing a new drug to market can be attributed to failures. With advances in computerenabled ability to screen drug candidates and predict outcomes, failure rates are falling. Analysts predict that these technological breakthroughs could reduce drugpipeline costs by as much as a third and time by as much as two years.

Manufacturing has also evolved into a high-tech industry. The integration of information technology, robotics and other automation and tracking technologies have allowed U.S. manufacturers to stay com petitive in a global economy.

Between 1995 and 2004 alone, the economic output per worker in the U.S. manufacturing sector rose 34 percent. Estimates by Federal Reserve economists attribute fully half of this increase to the benefits of information technology integration into manufacturing processes.

A recent study by the Association for Manufacturing Technology further asserts that advanced manufacturing technologies contributed nearly $1 trillion in economic benefit to the manufacturing sector.

Tom Snyder, president of Ivy Tech Community College and a 30-year veteran of manufacturing, has remarked that "if you work in manufacturing today, you're more likely to work in front of a computer or in a high-tech production cell than stand on a traditional assembly line."

Like the life sciences and manufacturing, the logistics industry is also incorporating information technologies to cope with increasingly complex global supply chains. Domestic freight volume is expected to double by 2035. Combined with trends like e-commerce and just-intime inventory demands, the logistics sector has been forced to become high-tech.

For example, manufacturers are investing in information technology to manage their distribution better. According to a recent Deloitte study, more than half of manufacturing firms are implementing enterprise resource management, demand planning, customer relationship management and e-procurement software systems.

Led by major retailers like Wal-Mart, suppliers are also under pressure to adopt radio-frequency identification and other "track and trace" technologies to better monitor the flow of products.

IT crucial to Indiana

According to a 2006 report by the Battelle Memorial Institute, Indiana is one of the nation's top four life science leaders in terms of the number and concentration of life science jobs. Manufacturing and logistics make up more than a third of the state's economy. As these technologyintensive industries grow, so will the demand for IT workers.

Indeed, when the Department of Workforce Development released its list of "Hoosier Hot 50 Jobs," it came as no surprise that five of the 10 fastest-growing were in information technology.

Our problem isn't the demand for hightech workers-it's our supply. Indiana and the nation must do a better job of encouraging young people to study IT and pursue available positions. The first step is making them aware that a job in technology doesn't mean being pigeonholed into a narrow career path or constantly worrying about the threat of offshoring.

It means a wide array of opportunities in any number of exciting fields: Whether it's engineering the next generation of hybrid cars or researching a lifesaving drug, IT workers play vital roles and are being wellpaid for doing so.

Jay is president and CEO of Techpoint, an advocacy organization for Indiana's technology sector. Views expressed here are the writer's.
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