Time to reconsider a career in IT

The current landscape of the local information technology (IT) workforce looks dire. The increasing use of IT to augment work has led to a chronic demand for IT skills. The demand for IT skills now exceeds its supply. About 30,000 IT jobs need to be filled by 2020. Many of these job vacancies require IT professionals, including IT technical specialists, with expertise in software development, network and infrastructure management, cybersecurity and data analytics.

This demand-supply imbalance is exacerbated by three factors. One, babyboomers in the IT profession are retiring.

Two, Singaporean youths studying IT in our institutes of higher learning (IHL) appear reluctant to consider IT as a career. A study of over 900 IT students in local IHLs found that three in 10 students received negative comments and discouragement from entering the IT profession. These comments and discouragement typically come from family and friends. Another study of over 1,000 local IT students points to an additional source of hesitancy to join the IT workforce - work-life conflict. Local IT students hold the view that there are high levels of work-life conflict in IT jobs. The negative perceptions of an IT career may be the reason why only an estimated half of all polytechnic IT students polled intend to pursue an IT career, after taking into account those who will go on to further their studies. Many polytechnic IT students are likely to go on to pursue a non-IT course of study in a university.

Three, there are curbs placed on the supply of foreign IT labour. These foreign labour curbs are driving calls to build a stronger Singapore core of IT talent.

The realities of an IT job do not quite help increase the propensity of entering the IT workforce, either. Yes, work-life conflicts exist in IT job roles; as it does in almost all other knowledge-based jobs where workers are connected to the office 24/7. While Singaporean IT professionals report being tight for time, the Singapore Computer Society Infocomm Survey of 690 IT professionals in 2010 also tells us that they have flexibility with how and where they perform their jobs. The question that matters and one that remains unanswered: is work-life conflict better or worse compared to an alternative career option?

But the more critical and chronic reality facing IT professionals is professional obsolescence - the erosion of the value of an IT professional's knowledge and skills due to the introduction of new technologies. For example, Apple's move to adopt Swift as its preferred development environment in 2014 eroded the value of knowledge and skills in Objective C, Apple's previous preferred development platform.

That one move made about nine million programmers professionally obsolete. The erosion in the value of knowledge and skills can potentially truncate IT careers; especially when such changes are not accompanied by professional development in newer technologies.

TRANSITIONING INTO TECHNOLOGY

At the same time, professional obsolescence can also make it easier for non-IT trained individuals to transition into IT. For example, the Infocomm Development Authority (IDA) makes available SkillsFuture Funds for non-IT professionals looking to enter the IT workforce. Monies from the fund can be used for conversion courses into the IT profession, IT training, and IT certifications. Non-IT professionals availing themselves of these opportunities can potentially leapfrog incumbent IT professionals in the value of their knowledge and skills.

A life-long learning orientation in the IT profession is critical if an incumbent intends to keep up with the latest technological changes and to continue to progress in an IT career. About two-thirds of the over 1,400 IT professionals (polled in the Singapore Computer Society Infocomm Survey 2009) indicated that they are actively developing up-to-date IT skills and that these updating efforts are supported by their employers.

Such training and development would be more effective when employers are able to provide cover from work when an IT professional is away on training. Although expensive, such support does free an IT professional's mind to concentrate on human capital development and helps reduce anxiety from an anticipated backlog of work.

Professional associations such as the Singapore Computer Society provide development programmes and certifications to keep IT professionals up to date with the latest in the IT discipline. IDA provides grants to support such training and development as these can be expensive on the individual's and employer's pockets.

Yet, the demands of an IT career on IT professionals has its pay-offs. Local IT professionals report that IT professionals find their work meaningful. In particular, they find meaning in developing close working relationships with others in the organisation, leveraging their competencies to benefit colleagues and peers, and creating something that is valued by others.

IT jobs are among best paying jobs in Singapore. According to salary.sg, 12 IT jobs are among the top 100 paying jobs. A poll of over 600 IT professionals in 2014 finds that IT professionals are attracted to and stay within the IT profession because of its higher salaries compared to other professions, the opportunities that exist for career advancement, and that the IT profession is one that is respected and considered a prestigious profession.

There are concerted efforts by various government agencies to boost the number of Singaporean core of IT professionals. These efforts are largely targeted at students in local educational institutions. For post-secondary students, there are a number of scholarships and grants on offer from IDA.

IDA and the Ministry of Education have announced curriculum to develop computational and logical thinking, and programming in secondary and primary school students. In anticipation, there is a rise in the demand for programming classes as parents enrol their children at "coding centres" and "programming bootcamps".

ONLINE RESOURCES

For self-directed learning, there are many good, freely available online resources that teach children how to code and have them explore coding though games and competitions. Examples of these resources include Scratch (https://scratch.mit.edu/), Tynker (https://www.tynker.com), and later this year, Swift Playgrounds (http://www.apple.com/swift/playgrounds/). Parents, like schools, can also complement efforts made by the government agencies. They can learn programming themselves or support their children's learning by going to online resources such as Scratch's parent pages and EdSurge (https://www.edsurge.com/research/guides/teaching-kids-to-code) which contain a wealth of resources on the art and science of programming.

Perhaps it is an opportune time for the young and those in mid-career to reconsider IT as a career option.


This article was first published on July 7, 2016.
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