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March 11, 2008

Is There Really an IT Labor Shortage?

Filed under: Careers, Certification, IT Industry — admin @ 1:51 pm

Slashdot recently linked to an article titled Is There Really an IT Labor Shortage? which argues that the alleged IT labor shortage is merely an argument of convenience for various companies.  The article also questions whether the skills shortage is really just that or a result of unrealistic hiring practices.

While I cannot disagree with some of the reasoning behind the argument of hiring practices, I’d like to propose another angle on the ‘labor shortage’ theory–too much ‘book knowledge’ and not enough critical thinking among IT job candidates.

My company has recently been looking for qualified support personnel.  The typical support engineer we hire has 7 to 10 years of industry experience in UNIX/Linux, Windows, Networking, SAN, or combinations thereof.  These are high level positions for high level people.  Granted, the ’support’ portion tends to scare away a good number of people from the outset. 

I tend to be involved in either the first level (phone screen) or second level (1st face to face) interviews.  Not only do most of the candidates not have strong enough technical skills, but of those that do, or appear to (according to their resume), all are lacking one critical skill–troubleshooting.  Troubleshooting, or more simply put, thinking for oneself, is a very basic and critical skill that seems to be lacking in the majority of candidates I speak with.

I don’t expect every candidate to know the answer to every technical question that I ask.  However, I do expect that they will able to admit that they don’t know, and tell me how to go about looking for the right answer, and how to attempt to break an unknown problem down to a more basic level by asking the right questions.  Problem definition is a critical part of troubleshooting and something that our organization tries to instill into our engineers.

For example, with one recent batch of phone screens, I provided a simple scenario, warning beforehand that there was no single correct answer.  The question was as follows:

“If you received a [call | email | trouble ticket] from a customer who reports that users of his Oracle database on Linux are reporting slowness, how would you go about troubleshooting this issue?”

Not a single candidate was able to provide a set of problem definition steps to my satisfaction.  Most attempted to solve the problem right off the bat by spouting off possible solutions to an unknown problem.  (I’d check the server’s disk space!  I’d look at subnet masks!, etc.).  I was hoping to hear logical questions to try to narrow down the problem, such as “Is the problem new?  Does it only occur at certain times of the day?  Are all users affected?  Are all queries affected?  Were any changes made recently?, Define slowness, How are you measuring slowness?, etc.”

Where does this lack of critical thinking come from?  I’m not entirely sure, but I think part of the blame can be laid at the feet of the myriad industry certification programs.  The bulk of the certification program keywords that you see tossed around only push people to know what is on the test.  No attention is given to troubleshooting, to trying to solve problems in a methodical fashion.  Not all certifications are like this–the CCIE and RHCE are two that I can think of off the top of my head that are lab-based, rather than ‘multiple-guess’.

I don’t know what the solution to this whole problem may be.  It almost seems like a self-perpetuating problem.  Companies put out ads for IT people with certifications X, Y, and Z, except those certification programs are not producing qualified candidates.  I for one would like to see a end to employment ads requiring a candidate with a bunch of 3 and 4 letter acronyms after their name.


  1. Wow! I have been saying this ever since my eldest child started computer study at tech school for grades 10-12.

    I am uncertified in all PC repair fields. But have learned to repair and network all the Win Os 98SE through Vista. I have been a component level electronic repair technician for better than 11 years until two years ago… Seems like everything is throw away or board swap these days. This tech had to close up shop!

    But the troubleshooting skills I have, along with the willingness to read up on any subject matter (be it PC Repair, Internet Security, Networking, or how to bypass/reset Win 2K Pro admin’s forgotten password) has been employed in the hobby of PCs and Network Repair… I’ve even made some money at it!

    Bless my eldest child’s heart she got soo frustrated recently when she couldn’t figure out a tower’s OS boot problem! It was quickly plain the problem was probably the hardware… (This example the Primary IDE Cable was intermittent sometimes somewhere…)

    It was a strange problem, as it seemed to have random errors at differing spots of the boot process. But That was clue in and of itself! My point to her was she needed to think through her problem more carefully, she doesn’t troubleshoot well… She just ‘knew’ the problem was software! So I am hoping to see that skill improve! She’s young having just graduated high school with an advanced diploma with technical endorsements!

    I’m getting old now, with kids starting college. But I am tempted to learn the certification tests in a couple areas to get back in to a tech oriented field professionally. I find the Rental Car industry boring, because it never challenges my thought processes!

    Comment by Robert Amerson — July 16, 2008 @ 11:45 pm

  2. Robert,

    Thanks for the comments. I’d be curious to know what your daughter is being taught in her PC tech classes at school? I’d bet its all technical with no attention to troubleshooting. Not that technical information is bad–it is certainly great to have someone who is immensely knowledgeable, but I’ve found that someone who is not as knowledgeable yet has a grasp of figuring things out systematically ends up being a better engineer in the long run.

    One thing you noted about your daughter’s experience with the boot problem is key though–jumping to conclusions. We are all guilty of that at one point or another, but I try to not to do so regularly. Questioning everything is one skill that will serve someone well over the course of their career.

    I’d say go for the certs–even though I talk down about certifications, I still hold quite a few. They are that critical piece that gets your foot in the door, because as I said in the original article, the HR groups are only looking for those acronyms. You may not need to put a lot of effort into the tests if you know the material already.

    Comment by admin — July 18, 2008 @ 11:43 am

  3. Well I must admit I am not a regular visitor of this website, but in conducting a web search was lead here. Anyhow I was reading through this particular post and was VERY pleased to do so. Before I go much further I will say that in terms of I.T. knowledge I consider my self to be very knowledgeable in the field. Mostly with MS products and some basic knowledge of UNIX/Linux variants as well troubleshooting simple SOHO router/switching equipment. Far from any top-level engineer obviously but then that is just what I want to point out. With some college level education and currently no certifications I absolutley believe that I can do just what the author of the article in question was pointing out. THINK CRITICALLY! I have read numerous books on certain certifications and while they certainly have much to offer in terms of working with a certain product this type of knowledge can be had by anyone with a book. In my search for some kind of entry level I.T. support job it has been quite clear that without some acronym jutting out on your resume you havn’t got a chance. I do understand employers want to know you have some knowledge of the PC products they are using but I have a big problem with being screened out completely because of this. I tend to blame the Employment agencies for a lot of this. They obviously get dozens and dozens of resumes and have to screen out ones they dont feel are good enough but I think they may be overlooking smart, and intelligent people who, although dont have the certs they are lookiing for but could probably solve a problem better or faster than someone with a cert. I may be totally off base here and I dont necessarily intend to knock the people with the certifications. My apologies. It is just that I beleive employers should broaden thier outlook on how to hire a confident, critical thinker as opposed to someone who looks good on paper.

    Comment by Brian Quigley — August 13, 2008 @ 12:45 pm

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