From Tech Unemployment to Workforce Development

Uncovering the root cause behind the disparity between unemployment rates for engineers and vacancies

9 January 2013

blog_geno Photo: Steven Noreyko

Editor's Note: Matt Genovese, an IEEE member, is the founder of Door64, an events organization focused on the high-tech demographic in Austin, Texas.

“Past performance is not an indicator of future success.” Versions of this warning grace the fine print sections of most investment brokerage websites. As engineers with our own anticipated career trajectories, we would do well to heed this warning as we decide how to invest in our own careers for the long term.

In the current employment market, there is at least an anecdotal imbalance between unemployed/underemployed engineers and engineering vacancies that remain unfilled (as highlighted by a previous IEEE Roundup blog post). Personally, I have observed the same phenomena here in Austin, Texas, often accompanied by strong and vexing emotions. As an engineer, I want to uncover and address the root cause of the apparent supply and demand mismatch—a disparity between tech unemployment and tech vacancies.

Let’s frame the conversation in terms of my experiences in Austin.  Five years ago I founded Door64—a company that serves the area’s technology community, creating events to foster growth of career-oriented networks among technology professionals. One initiative in 2012 was conducting our Painpoint Hiring Survey aimed at uncovering which technology roles were the most difficult to fill for local employers. They told us that software candidates with specific skills and experience were in short supply in Austin, so using the results we create specialized events aimed at attracting that critical talent to the city. However, with many engineers here still out of work, attraction alone is a short-term fix. As a community, I believed we should make our best effort to fill the hiring needs using our existing technology talent. Therefore, the supply and demand discussion needs to transition toward talent development solutions for the local workforce, and likewise individual engineers ought to invest in their own careers by adapting to the marketplace through continuing education.

Practical Guidance for EngineersForemost, my observations from our 2012 survey indicate that software development is an excellent area to consider for professional growth.  Specifically, our Painpoint Hiring Survey indicated that Java and Microsoft .NET are in critical demand, as well as software quality assurance engineers. I am inclined to believe these high-demand skills are not necessarily unique to Austin, so applying your time and energy towards proficiency in at least one of these areas is worthy of consideration.

Secondly, there are a variety of forums for learning these skills. Many times engineers who already hold an undergraduate degree believe the only next viable step is a masters or Ph.D.  My view is that your educational investment should be guided by the return on that investment, which is tied back to the demand-side needs in the employment marketplace. That means a graduate degree program is not necessarily required. Instead, you might need a few classes.  While some people prefer taking classes in a traditional setting, others may work better in an online format, while some prefer self-taught courses taken at their own pace. It is much more important to just get started. Enough options are available so you can learn at almost any time of day. Even if you are working full-time, you still have time before work, or a few hours before bed.

Finally, let’s talk about “experience.” Most job descriptions require a level of experience—a Catch-22 for many unless you have previously worked in that field.  Experience is a nebulous term, and may imply a time requirement, a level of maturity, persistence in the field, or a depth of understanding. My guidance is that a public demonstration of experience is valuable. Creating a non-trivial project available online for others to view and use demonstrates a certain level of competence, and may be helpful in lieu of on-the-job experience. Contributing to an open-source project is another way to publicly demonstrate competency.  In addition, relevant user groups are not only great places to learn from the experience of others but also through networking, you may find a mentor to work with as you progress in your education.  Your new contacts could one day help you transition into a job at their company.

The Bigger PictureAs I speak with different leaders in academia about the need for programs targeting mid-career technology professionals, I realize there is opportunity to create localized workforce development programs with closed-loop feedback tied back to the demands of the region’s technology industry. These need not be formal graduate programs nor standardized certification programs. The program I envision can be customized by its very nature with a strong buy-in from local technology employers, so some experimentation will be required to find a model that works.

As I continue down this path towards developing such a program, I will share what I learn with the IEEE community through future blog posts.

Photo: Steve Debenport/iStockphoto

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