IT Workforce in the U.S.: 4 Million or 24 Million?Feds Favor the Lower Number but Others the Higher One
Each month, like clockwork, the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics issues the previous month's unemployment rate (9.4 percent in December) on the first Friday of the month. The figure comes from a monthly survey of 60,000 households in which interviewers assign individuals to one of about 800 occupation categories.
We use data from the household survey in our quarterly analysis of IT employment trends. (We'd like to focus on IT security employment trends, but BLS does not publish data on information security pros; it will, starting with 2011 data, but more on that later. For now, BLS classifies most infosec pros in one of the eight computer occupations.) Our latest analysis based on the household survey, IT Employment Ends 2010 Near 2-Year High, pegs IT employment just under 4 million.
That number did not sit well with David Foote, CEO and chief research officer at Foote Partners, a research firm that tracks IT payroll and spending trends. Foote, who called me after he read our analysis, said the government's employment numbers grossly understate the number of workers in the United States employed in IT. He estimates that number at between 20 million and 25 million; that's about 14 percent to 18 percent of the total American workforce, compared with under 3 percent using the BLS numbers.
Why the discrepancy? BLS and Foote (as well as others) define IT occupations differently.
The government began devising its occupation classifications in the late 1990s, some of which seemed outdated by the time they were implemented in 2003. Just look at the eight categories: computer scientists and systems analysts, computer and information systems managers, computer programmers, computer software engineers, computer support specialists, database administrators, network and computer systems administrators and network systems and data communications analysts.
Beginning in April, when first quarter 2011 employment stats are issued, BLS will rejigger some occupational categories and add several new ones related to IT, including one called Information Security Analysts. It defines information security analysts as those who:
Plan, implement, upgrade or monitor security measures for the protection of computer networks and information. May ensure appropriate security controls are in place that will safeguard digital files and vital electronic infrastructure. May respond to computer security breaches and viruses.
The definition specifically excludes the new occupational category Computer Network Architects, which includes the responsibility of designing network and computer security measures.
These definitions come from the Standard Occupation Classification, which serves as the basis for the Census Occupation Classification, the list of job categories survey takers ask the households they contact.
Who Is, Isn't an IT Worker?
Foote and others have a much wider definition of what is an IT professional. Nearly all occupations - at least knowledge-base ones - require a certain tech savviness. "Even a low-level administrative worker must have IT skills that didn't exist five to 10 years ago," he says. But he's not counting that worker as an IT pro, but says there are a number of jobs in sales, marketing, administration, engineering and so on that require sufficient info tech know-how to be classified as an IT occupation.
His argument isn't new. I wrote about this in 2004, in an article entitled The New Math: Seeking The IT Workforce's True Size, which noted that the IT workforce then stood at 3.3 million by BLS's estimation but 10.4 million by the calculation of the Information Technology Association of America (now TechAmerica). In that article, I wrote about Liquid Pictures, a tiny company that creates computer-generated animations:
"Owner Zachary Rymland turns to senior animator Piyatida Shiozaki when he needs extra aesthetics in an animation. Shiozaki, with a master's degree in computer arts, doesn't think of herself as a technologist. Senior animator Jeffrey Reynolds is the resident techie, a math whiz who customizes and automates processes to generate a complex animation."
As I asked then, should Shiozaki and Reynolds be classified as IT workers? BLS would say no; others would disagree.
Why We Do What We Do
In today's world, it's hard to differentiate between a pure IT worker and others who need advanced information technology knowledge (well beyond Microsoft Office) to perform their jobs. Similarly, even traditional IT jobs, such as application developers or network and computer systems administrators, as defined by the eight BLS occupation categories, require IT security skills. When BLS begins to report numbers from the information security analyst category, it won't truly reflect the number of people devoting a significant portion of their job to IT security.
As for the BLS numbers; I don't take them as gospel, and agree the IT workforce is much larger than those figures contend. What's important about our analysis isn't whether 4 million or 24 million Americans are employed as IT professionals. The key to our reporting is the direction IT employment is heading. And, for now, it's the best data we have.
Unfortunately, when BLS releases the first numbers on IT security analysts, there won't be much history to compare them with; a BLS economist says there only will be a year's history provided. Still, the new data will provide a clearer picture of the IT security profession than we now see. And, as the years pass, we'll get that historic data to make our comparisons.
But those numbers won't tell the full story because, like IT, information security is becoming a more important skill for most computer-related jobs as well many other occupations.