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The Retail IT Brain Drain: Shouldn't Retail Mean These Jobs Too?


Last week I attended RIS News’ Retail Executive Summit in San Diego, CA. The venue couldn’t have been more beautiful (The Grand Del Mar), the content was strong and attendance impressive. While the subject of IT staffing was not on the agenda, it came up so often in the course of conversation that I had to sit up and take notice. I’d heard mutterings on this subject before, but this conference sealed the deal for me. We’ve got ourselves a serious shortage of programmers and other technology professionals in US Retail, and it appears to be reaching epidemic proportions. I can’t believe we’re the only industry with this problem, and I’m not sure whether or not we’re the only country having the same issue, but in any case, it’s a real head banger for me. I’m thinking our outsourcing chickens have really come home to roost.

When I started out in IT (post punch cards, so no snickering please), I was a COBOL programmer. I remember being so excited that I’d gotten into a profession that was both reasonably lucrative and most definitely portable. The “programmer with three years’ experience” was in a great position. If you were in any good, you could always find work. Even if you were quasi-good, you could still find work. Outsourcing changed all that.

One of the people I spoke to at the conference suggested that parents are very careful with their college-aged children, and they are steering them away from IT. All things considered, I can’t really blame them. We’ve just spent a decade hearing stories about technology-related jobs disappearing. I knew programmers and software engineers who remained unemployed for several years.

However we got here, we are here now. There’s a significant lack of IT talent available to retailers. It causes project delays, higher cost projects in general (as those with specific skills become contractors for hire), and a quality deterioration. And now I’m going to begin my rant.

When I think of all the interest groups who should be caring about this issue, my head spins. Let’s take a look.

  • Politicians – We’re in an election year. With a structural unemployment rate that hovers at (depending on who you include) between 9 and 15%, you’d think SOMEONE would glom onto this as an opportunity. And it actually has very little to do with our openly-secret failings as a country in turning out math and science brilliance from our colleges and universities. Anyone who is or has been a programmer knows a secret – business programming just isn’t all that math or science oriented. It’s about logic. Even a former sociology major like me could be good at it.
  • Trade Associations – The NRF has a whole web site dedicated to the premise that “retail means jobs.” But when you look at the initiative’s agenda here, there isn’t a single word about improving our technology competitiveness. That’s really unfortunate given that at least one very large retailer has blamed a failed technology initiative on the inability to find the right talent in just the past year alone. Sure there’s an agenda item called “Advance Innovation” but it’s more about legal and obvious financial issues than it about actual innovation. Seriously.
  • Industry and University Leaders – It’s almost as if this is “The problem that dare not speak its name”. Macy’s has done a fabulous job hiring new merchants and store operations personnel through the Lundgren Center at University of Arizona. But where are the matching technical programs? I know that the major technology vendors offer copies of their software to colleges and universities so that those who will ultimately use the software have a leg up before their first job.

Left to itself, the problem is only getting worse. One executive I talked to said he’s expecting 30% of his programming staff to retire next year. Not because he’s running a sweatshop, but because they’re all baby boomers like me – and, well, it’s just that time for many of us.

So what are we going to do? Are we just going to continue to pay too much for our tech projects because we haven’t made the up-front effort? Are we going to rely on people a half-a-world away to solve our critical business issues? Or are we going to step up and be leaders? Feel free to comment, reply, react, or yell at me. Just do SOMETHING. My opinion: This is ridiculous.


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Articles & Opinions June 19, 2012
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