Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Reframing computer programming in a global labor market

As a former computer programmer myself, I found this article in Business Week kind of interesting. Apparently the meaning of "programming" has now narrowed into "technical" work which, by definition, can be outsourced/offshored and made into lower-paying, more-contingent labor. Thus would-be and current "programmers" are now redefining and remarketing themselves as business consultants:

As tens of thousands of engineering jobs migrate to developing countries, many new entrants into the U.S. work force see info tech jobs as monotonous, uncreative and easily farmed out -- the equivalent of 1980s manufacturing jobs.

The research firm Gartner Inc. predicts that up to 15 percent of tech workers will drop out of the profession by 2010, not including those who retire or die. Most will leave because they can't get jobs or can get more money or job satisfaction elsewhere. Within the same period, worldwide demand for technology developers -- a job category ranging from programmers people who maintain everything from mainframes to employee laptops -- is forecast to shrink by 30 percent.

Gartner researchers say most people affiliated with corporate information technology departments will assume "business-facing" roles, focused not so much on gadgets and algorithms but corporate strategy, personnel and financial analysis.

(Cite: http://www.businessweek.com/ap/tech/D8ARVH3O0.htm?campaign_id=apn_tech_down)

From my own experience, though, "programmers" have been competitively advertising themselves as anything-but-programmers for some time. In the early 1990s, I and the other folks in the MIS department where I worked as a "programmer" learned to seek job titles like "analyst" and to talk of ourselves as "internal consultants". Job trajectories careened between bouts of contract work with outside consuting firms -- both small and large -- and stints of in-house employment at firms large enough to demand their own MIS departments. There were more objectives to this "tacking" strategy than simply increasing one's salary: we "programmers" simultaneously sought positions where we could acquire specific new software and hardware skills (the latest database product, the latest server platform), and positions where we could claim a new set of core business familiarities and competencies (from engineering firms to banking firms to real estate firms and so on).

Much of this churning seemed to be driven by the pace of technological development on the "supply side" (software and hardware firms constantly updating old products and innovating new products) and the pace of technological competition on the "demand side" (business firms constantly seeking competitive advantage by hiring individuals with the most recent knowledge and experience to increase accumulation through the use of these new products). Both time scales were so short that they constantly reproduced a large project-based, just-in-time, external technology consulting labor market, while sustaining a small managerial-based, long-term, internal business strategy labor market.

Thus when Business Week cites figures illustrating the decline in "programming" jobs:

The U.S. software industry lost 16 percent of its jobs from March 2001 to March 2004, the Washington-based Economic Policy Institute found. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that information technology industries laid off more than 7,000 American workers in the first quarter of 2005.

I'm not sure that these statistics map so easily on straightforward and presumably easily-subsitutable "technical" jobs rather than more complicated "analyst" jobs -- both external and internal -- combining technical knowledge with business skills in varying doses.

No matter whether "programming" jobs are now declining in favor of "analyst" jobs, or whether such jobs have always blended into each other in practice, perhaps the salient question at this moment in time is, given the new discourse about the value of (supposedly) purely technical labor and the limits of (supposedly) purely technical skills, how should institutions of professional education and job training prepare the next generation of successful information laborers? How are information laborers going to understand their career opportunities, labor market competitors, and avenues for both professional growth and job security? The Business Week article warns that the previous academic markers of credentialing will be insufficient in a newly global competitive labor market for programming labor:

The average computer programmer in India costs roughly $20 per hour in wages and benefits, compared to $65 per hour for an American with a comparable degree and experience, according to the consulting firm Cap Gemini Ernst & Young.

According to the most recent data from the National Science Foundation, 1.2 million of the world's 2.8 million university degrees in science and engineering in 2000 were earned by Asian students in Asian universities, with only 400,000 granted in the United States.

The implication seems to be that the US needs to both award more computer programming degrees to increase the size of the US labor pool, and to increase the value and/or cultural meaning of that programming degree to distinguish it from those earned by competing labor pools. But in doing so, we in the US also need to reexamine the actual work practices of those we consider to be performing purely "technical" labor, because our ideals of what we're teaching our workers might not match the reality of what those workers are actually doing. This points not only to more engagement between "information studies" teachers and researchers and the science- and engineering-based teachers and researchers who credential most high-wage information laborers, but also to an expectation that those "purely technical" workers in the outsourced/offshored areas of the global labor market may not themselves be so different from domestic "analysts" as free-market advocates in business and government would like us to believe. Differences in wages paid and status assigned to these workers, in other words, might be less a function of a well-working market which automatically discriminates between differing levels of skill and value, and more a function of both strategic discourse on the part of firms which desire to find high-skill workers but pay low-skill wages, and wishful identity construction on the part of domestic information workers who are seeing their own horizons of opportunity shrink, yet are unable to feel solidarity with workers replacing them who might live a county, a state, or an ocean away.

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