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Week of 27 February 1998

Vol. I, No. 22

Feature Article

Huge demand for IT workers

BU introduces employee referral program

by Brian Fitzgerald

Responding to a growing demand for -- and shortage of -- information technology (IT) professionals, Boston University recently established an employee referral program. Eligible employees can earn a cash award of $5,000 for referring an external applicant who is hired to a designated open position in information systems at BU.

Open to all qualified faculty and staff at Boston University, the referral program was initiated "in response to the increasing difficulty we face finding technology support staff," says Michael Krugman, executive director of BU's Office of Information Technology.

Krugman says that the shortfall is not unique to Boston University. Throughout the United States, demand for IT personnel far outstrips supply, and the problem is projected to get worse over the next several years. "There is a pressing need for qualified people to support our burgeoning national computing, communications, and information infrastructure," says Krugman.

Although the magnitude of this talent shortage varies from region to region, the Information Technology Association of America, in Washington, D.C., reports that more than 346,000 IT jobs need to be filled at large and midsize U.S. companies. Other estimates are even higher. A Microsoft study indicates that there may be as many as 450,000 openings.

Why aren't there enough IT professionals, including analysts, consultants, programmers, network engineers, and database and systems engineers? "There are many factors," says Krugman. "The use of technology has increased dramatically, but our educational system is not producing enough people to satisfy the demand. And this situation isn't expected to change any time soon."

Another factor in the shortfall is the so-called 2000 problem, when some computer systems are expected to suffer from the "millennium bug," caused by the widespread practice of representing years with two digits instead of four. (See story on page 1.) Computers that can't differentiate between the years 1900 and 2000 may fail at the turn of the century. The severity of the problem is in dispute, "but it's creating an additional demand for programmers to fix or replace existing systems," says Krugman.

At a press conference last fall, U.S. Secretary of Commerce William Daley likened the IT labor shortage to a national emergency. "Since information technologies affect every sector and industry in the U.S., severe shortages of workers could undermine U.S. innovation, productivity, and competitiveness in the global market," he said.

Demand will be highest for systems analysts, whose ranks must nearly double to fill a projected 928,000 jobs in 2005, according to a recent report by the U.S. Department of Commerce. Programming jobs will grow at a 12 percent rate by 2005.

At present there are approximately 30 open technical positions on BU's Charles River Campus. Beginning with the March 13 issue, the BU Bridge will identify the positions designated for the referral award in its "Jobs" section. Designated positions, all in the salary grade 50 series, will also be accessible on the Web at http://www.bu.edu/PERSONNEL and through GALAXY by selecting JOBPOSTING in the INFO function. In addition, in early March the Office of Personnel will distribute brochures describing the employee referral program, including the requisite form.

Not eligible for the awards will be Boston University students, temporary employees, Office of Personnel staff, Corporate Education Center employees, and employees in career placement offices. Supervisory staff and faculty will not be eligible when hiring in their unit. "It would be a potential conflict of interest to extend eligibility to anyone involved in the decision-making process when hiring an em ployee," explains Hilary Murray, manager of employee relations, employment, and training at BU's Office of Personnel.

The award will be paid once the hired person completes six months of continuous employment. The referring employee will also have to be still actively employed at BU. If a referred applicant is hired for a nondesignated position, no award will be paid. In the event an applicant is referred from more than one source, the deciding factor will be the referral date. Designated positions will be limited to the Charles River Campus, but Medical Campus employees will be eligible for the award.

Cash referral awards have long been practiced in private industry, Murray points out. She also recalls a cash referral program at BU in the mid-1980s, when there was a general shortage of employees in the Boston area's workforce. "We've found that some of the best references come from our own employees," she says. "A personal reference is the best reference you can get."

In addition, outside recruiters typically charge a finder's fee amounting to 30 percent of the hired worker's salary. Murray says that contract labor is also expensive. "In so many ways an in-house cash referral award is a good investment for both the University and our employees," she says.