Zerto Exclusive: Should we embrace or fear a global IT workforce?

Rob Strechay
|May 3|magazine21 min read

Today there are roughly 18mn IT professionals around the globe. In the US specifically, in 2016, there were nearly 2.65mn “Computer and Information” jobs with that number expected to increase to 2.86mn by 2026, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. At the same time, between 2007 and 2017, more than 2mn “computer related” H-1B visas have been filed to help fill those positions with talent from overseas, the most popular solution to the US IT skills gap.

At this point, America’s IT skills gap is a well-known problem, but how did it come to be? What are emerging markets like Israel and India doing to help produce highly-skilled IT professionals? When it comes to a dependence on foreign talent, should the US embrace it or fear it?

How Did the Skills Gap Come to Be?

When we look at what happened to create the skills gap in the US, some are quick to make connections to a need for more STEM education. Perhaps STEM plays a small role, but the bigger issue is that the majority of the IT workforce in the US consists of IT generalists while the evolution of the IT space demands more and more specialists. One area where this is most prominent is cybersecurity. According to research completed last year by (ISC)2, there are nearly 3mn unfilled cybersecurity positions in the world today, with the Asia Pacific region and North America owning the largest gaps at 2.14mn and nearly 500,000 respectively.  As cyber threats continue to rise and are predicted to rise even more in the coming years, IT professionals with specific cybersecurity and IT resilience skills will remain in high demand.

The trouble is that these specialized workers are few and far between. Colleges, universities, trade programs and even employee training programs haven’t caught up, in any country really. Not for lack of trying, but because it’s near impossible to change entire education programs at the same rate at which the IT industry is evolving.

Let’s Look at Emerging Markets

So, what can be done? It sounds like an impossible challenge, but there are some interesting strategies other countries are deploying to tackle the problem.

Take Israel for example. Speaking of cybersecurity, Israel has become a major hub for cybersecurity-related businesses. The nature of being a country that, unfortunately, has had to consistently battle conflict over the past 70 years, including cyber conflict, has resulted in Israel having one of the strongest military programs in the world, inclusive of the infamous Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Unit 8200. This unit of the Israeli military, founded because Israel recognized the worldwide cybersecurity issue early on, has become a world-renowned cybersecurity startup incubator and produces some of the best cybersecurity talent in the world; talent that has gone on to boost Israel’s economy with 20% of the global private cyber security investment going to Israel in 2016.

What makes the IDF’s cybersecurity education experience unique is that those serving in cybersecurity-related units dive right in. Each member contributes to real-life cybersecurity challenges on a daily basis and is encouraged to work together as a team to solve some of the biggest cybersecurity challenges of our time. The IDF also places high value on fresh perspectives brought by the younger generations serving their mandatory time in service. In the brand-new world of cybersecurity, this culture comes in handy. Soldiers are encouraged to think critically and even challenge authority, which results in new ways of thinking when it comes to solving today’s cybersecurity challenges.

It would be interesting to see what could happen to the global cybersecurity workforce if the US and other countries adopted some of these practices; practices that encourage young military talent to leverage their specialized skills out in the business world.

Another emerging market, India, may have some lessons to share when it comes. In 2017, India surpassed the US in total number of software developers, and over the next 20 years, about 110mn workers will be added to India’s labor force, exceeding projections for the US, China, Russia and Japan combined. Furthermore, a 2014 LinkedIn study found that Bangalore, India produces more tech talent than any other city in the world.

Now, much of this can be attributed to India’s immense population and the fact that about 50% of the population is under the age of 25. But there’s also a growing culture shift in India that’s contributing to the production of specialized IT talent. Traditional college degrees are no longer seen as the necessity they once were, with new, more unconventional education methods rising in popularity; methods that focus more on skill versus just quality or quantity of education. Platforms such as coding bootcamps and hackathons switch the focus to merit-based hiring and open opportunities to a much larger pool of candidates.

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Embrace it or Fear it?

As the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Migration states, “The talent shock is coming. It will arrive in years, not decades, regardless of the current economic crisis. It is now time for all involved stakeholders to ally forces and prepare for the era of extreme labor scarcity, significant talent mobility and a truly global workforce.

Leaders from government, companies, educational institutions and international organization should collaborate on a systematic basis to address the talent shortages and encourage innovation through redesigned talent mobility.”

We have no choice but to embrace a global workforce. And we don’t have to do so begrudgingly. We are already seeing, and will continue to see tremendous benefits from this workforce shift. Recent research by Carnegie Mellon University and Georgetown University reveals that the ability for multinational companies based in the US “to access a global talent base could support a high rate of innovation even in the presence of” rising human resource costs. The analysis goes on to state that “global flows of investment, people and ideas could help relax” the constraints the US is experiencing when it comes to “the supply of human capital in the fields of software and IT,” ultimately “raising growth, productivity, and consumption possibilities worldwide.”

In the end, the US is a technology powerhouse because of its ability to attract the best talent from all over the world. The US has a cybersecurity skills gap, for example, and Israel is able to help fill that gap with programs like the US-Israeli bilateral cyber working group. Both the US and Israel are better for it. Likewise, talent from India helps fill the US’s software developer gap, and both the US and India benefit.

The diversity in skills and talent that come to the US from other countries has not only strengthened the US’s level of technology innovation, but has also helped increase the US’s pool of skilled technical educators, mentors, managers, executives and more. In turn, as the US’s demand for IT talent continues to rise, this also helps fuel the growth of IT industries in countries that are able to meet that demand.

So where does this leave us? How do we think about the future of IT talent? The future is global and the landscape is global. We worry less about talent shortages in particular countries and focus more on how we can benefit each other, country to country; leveraging each other’s strengths for global growth and success.