Here's how to solve America's developer shortage

Employers say they can't find enough workers to staff IT jobs. Maybe they've been going about it all wrong

If we want to rejuvenate the software development jobs market in the United States, we need to radically rethink how we deliver IT education to American students, to say nothing of how we hire IT workers. The Academy for Software Engineering, due to open its doors in New York City in fall 2012, is a step in the right direction.

Most of the really top-notch developers I know became passionate about computing in high school or earlier. Unfortunately, for many of them it was in spite of the schools they attended, not because of them.

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Meanwhile, demand for software developers is only accelerating. CNN Money ranked software development at the top its list of "Best Jobs for Fast Growth" in 2011. The Dice 2012-2011 Salary Survey lists eight skills that commanded six-figure salaries and experienced above-average growth in 2011; all eight are software development skills. And IT salaries overall are climbing, despite lingering pessimism about the state of the U.S. economy.

That's great news if you're looking for a software development job. It's not so great if you're doing the hiring. Rising wages indicates a severe shortage of skilled tech workers, forcing many companies to outsource software development and IT management overseas. Encouraging more Americans to enter computing fields is the only way to reverse that trend, and investing in education is an important step toward that goal.

Are U.S. workers priced out of the market?

Pessimists argue that it doesn't really matter how many new jobseekers we pump into the U.S. technology market. As long as offshoring allows companies to staff IT positions at developing-nation wages, they say, there's no reason to return jobs to the U.S. But is that really true?

For most companies, hiring domestic employees is eminently preferable to hiring overseas ones. Compared to the outsourcing boom of the early 2000s, most employers have grown much less sanguine about the benefits of offshoring. The problems that arise due to language, cultural, and time-zone differences are well documented. If the raw cost savings didn't seem so dramatic, many companies probably wouldn't even consider it -- and we know now that those promised savings often evaporate once the project is underway.

If offshoring still looks good on paper, it's at least partly because the cost of hiring American software developers is often so disproportionate to the value of the work needed. Not every software development job requires a master's degree in computer science. Most entry-level positions involve little more than rote programming and code maintenance. The fact that the average salary for U.S. software developers is approaching six figures suggests that, at least for some roles, the skills shortage has inflated compensation to unrealistic levels.

Unfortunately, college degree programs have long been touted as the only viable road to a software development career. By the time prospective applicants have completed four or more years of postsecondary education, however -- particularly with college costs on the rise -- they can scarcely afford to enter the workforce at entry-level wages. Where will U.S. businesses find the journeyman coders they need to round out their workforces, if not overseas?

It beats digging ditches (by a long shot)

But let's not be pessimistic. In fact, to many of us, the idea that there is a shortage of Americans who are willing and motivated to do IT work for a reasonable wage seems absurd. Today's teenagers are steeped in computing and the Internet. They play online games, they're on social networks, they're versed in PCs, smartphones, and tablets. Many build their own Web pages, and some go further than that. Are none of these people employable?

In fact, common sense suggests that this should be a boom time for the U.S. technology industry. Learning to write software isn't like training to become a pharmacist, a dental assistant, or an HVAC technician, where students need access to expensive, specialized equipment and must pass government certification exams before they can practice their trades.

By comparison, the barriers to entry for a computing education are incredibly low. Brand-new PCs and laptops now retail for less than $500. Open source development tools cost nothing -- and they're the same tools the professionals use. Where once budding programmers studied from books that cost $40 apiece or more, today the equivalent material is available for free online.

Which brings us back to our high-schoolers. There's virtually nothing preventing motivated teens from gaining the skills the American software industry wants so desperately, long before they enter college. The key is to unlock their potential, both by encouraging their interest and by offering opportunities once they're ready to enter the workforce. That's where the Academy for Software Engineering comes in.

New education for a new workforce

The academy is not a trade school or vocational school. It's not a place to send kids who aren't on the college track (though, as with all high schools, some graduates may choose not to pursue four-year degrees). It's a regular high school, offering the full standard curricula in English, history, math, and science. Its program just happens to include advanced coursework in computer literacy and programming.

Equally important, there are no academic requirements for admission to the Academy for Software Engineering. It puts the lie to the idea that software development is something for the academic elite and that only the "best and brightest" need apply. Although there are a limited number of seats in the campus -- in the first year, it will probably accept between 400 and 500 applicants -- prospective students are judged based on their interest level alone. Instead of offering computing courses as a reward for good performance in other subjects, the academy takes students' interest in computing as a given and uses it as a springboard for the rest of their education.

By eliminating test-based admissions requirements, the academy also hopes to attract students of all gender, ethnic, and economic backgrounds, thus opening the IT workforce to a much broader cross-section of the American populace. That diversity is sorely needed.

What students at the academy stand to gain is not merely a foundational education in software engineering, but also the encouragement, resources, and basic academic credentials they need to continue on to a career in the IT field. What they will still need once they graduate is partnership from the IT industry.

The current divide between outsourced developers at the low end and American developers at the absolute top end of the pay scale is largely artificial. Until U.S. employers embrace a more realistic view of their operational needs -- including not just seasoned professionals with advanced degrees, but entry-level programmers and everything in between -- the cycle of outsourcing and erosion of the American IT workforce will continue, and we'll only have ourselves to blame.

The vision of the Academy for Software Engineering is to help create a new breed of IT professional, one that's better acclimated to the realities of today's jobs market. It's up to U.S. companies to have vision enough to hire them.

This article, "Here's how to solve America's developer shortage," originally appeared at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Neil McAllister's Fatal Exception blog and follow the latest news in programming at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

This story, "Here's how to solve America's developer shortage" was originally published by InfoWorld.

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