Estimates of how many people work in IT vary, as do definitions of what a tech worker is and what a tech worker does. I've looked at definitions and numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, from CompTIA (the Computer Technology Industry Association), and from IDC and other research firms.
Based on what I've seen, I'll say there are about 1 million software developers in the United States, 2 million other programmers (with the understanding that the line is blurred between these two groups), and 3 million other people working in IT services in some capacity.
The sum of 6 million represents close to 4% of the US workforce of 155 million. I'll use these numbers as the basis of discussion for this article.
It's the Economy, Stupid
I've written previously about the need to develop “Q sectors” in the global economy. These are the high-end sectors of a Knowledge Economy that promise good jobs at good wages, providing a path for positive socio-economic development.
The Q sectors embrace jobs other than those in IT, everything from school teachers and professional writers, to doctors and lawyers, to investment bankers and venture capitalists. Certainly the creation of jobs in most of those professions should be encouraged in all countries. But there seems to be a natural limit for all of them (even as healthcare is likely to outpace most industries.)
Yes, IT is Different
The IT industry is different. Certainly the three great stages of the Information Age – mainframes and minis, the PC and networking, the Internet and mobile – have each spawned significant new employment and aided a societal shift upward.
Now we're at the cusp of a fourth great age, with the great trends of open-source, cloud computing, big data, the IoT, blockchain, and cognitive computing coalescing into ubiquitous IT.
So the IT industry should be one that grows and grows for decades to come. I co-founded the Tau Institute a few years ago inspired by the notion that not only should the industry continue to grow rapidly, but that those nations which commit to IT aggressively will benefit mightily. This commitment runs from software technologies at all levels, through all forms of Internet connectivity, to manufacturing modern systems and deploying modern datacenters.
No Limits to Growth and Potential
I view such development as limitless, rather than a zero-sum game in which some country's gain is another's loss. It's a Herculean and perhaps impossible task to hoist the world's impoverished billions to a level of comfort routinely found in developed nations. Certainly there are countless organizations and people who are trying to do this.
Our research at the Tau Institute discovers how well more than 100 nations of the world are developing their national IT infrastructures, on a relative basis.
By adjusting absolute measurements – access to the Internet, average bandwidth, income parity, levels of corruption, and dozens of other factors – to account for local incomes and costs of living, we are able to produce “pound-for-pound” rankings that offer fairminded comparisons of developed and developing nations.
We can also show which nations have the potential to develop most quickly, as well as those which may be advancing too quickly with the social disruption that can come with it. The long game here is to encourage all nations to keep pushing, to keep re-committing to IT, and to creating as high a percentage of IT-driven Q-sector jobs as possible.
Things are Unequal – Really Unequal
The world's current income disparity reveals itself in a brief overview:
The United States, for example now has less than 5% of the world's population. It still maintains 23% of the world's economy.
This imbalance is not just an American phenomenon. Let's take a look at more than 100 countries in our rankings, grouped into five income tiers. There are clear differences in cultures, governments, and local conditions among the countries in each tier, but similar needs and stresses throughout.
The top tier has per-person incomes of at least $30,000 per year. Examples of countries in this group (known as Tier 1) are the US, Japan, and France.
The next two tiers have incomes between $6,000 and $30,000. Countries include South Korea, Poland, Chile in Tier 2 and Malaysia, Mexico, and Turkey in Tier 3.
The final two tiers have incomes below $6,000. Countries include Morocco, Indonesia, and Honduras in Tier 4 and Kenya, Ghana, and India in Tier 5.
The 103 nations under review here constitute almost 90% of the world's population and economy. Within these numbers:
- The first tier has 16% of the population, and control 62% of the economy.
- The next two tiers also have 16% of population, and control 19% of the economy.
- The final two tiers have 68% of the population, and control 19% of the economy.
- Remove China, and the final two tiers have 59% of the remaining population and control 9% of the remaining economy.
- Remove China and India, and the Tier 5 countries have 27% of the remaining world population and control less than 2% of the remaining economy.
- Two-thirds of the world's people live on 2% to 10% of the income of the top one-sixth.
- If we drill down into these numbers, the concentration of wealth at the top becomes even more extreme.
So What Do We Do?
There seem to be three available approaches to the situation:
- Consider it a zero-sum game, build economic fortresses, and take the approach of medieval cities defending their walls.
- Support charitable and development efforts of the hundreds of major NGOs and foundations worldwide that address the problems of the developing world.
- Develop and encourage education, training, and investment to create as many Q-sector jobs as possible to advance all societies socio-economically, each at its own relative pace.
But I would say that all of us in the technology business can perhaps best serve our industry and the world by focusing on how our software and hardware innovations can best be propagated to the corners of the world.
Balance Training and Jobs
The same holds true for developed countries. No reason to retrain former manufacturing workers or educate young people about IT if their won't be new jobs. The same desperation runs deep in the hearts of all unemployable people everywhere, whether in Dar es Salaam or Milwaukee.
Yet because of the relative approach we take in our research, we don't expect to create the same percentage IT jobs in a Tier 4 or 5 economy as we would in a highly developed one.
This point seems intuitive, but is routinely ignored by every other economic ranking system I've seen. Traditional rankings are nothing more than compilations of wealthy countries on top and poor countries at the bottom. It's much more important to know:
- How are the countries of the world doing compared to their regional and economic peers?
- How dynamic are their technology ecosystems, and therefore how well can we expect them to grow?
- What are optimum goals for IT job creation, given current economic conditions?
To ensure a measure of sanity in our rankings, I created a nation called Perfectland, which has the optimum balance of population, income, and overall development. When deriving our formulas, Perfect Land should win the overall rankings and rank somewhere in the middle as far as raw dynamism.
We've said for our analysis that the US has 4% of its jobs in the IT sector. This implies that Perfectland might have IT employment of 5% of its total population.
With this in mind, we can then derive reasonable IT-driven, Q-sector targets for each of the nations in our research. Well-developed countries would have targets in the 4-5% range.
Less-developed nations would have more modest, more reachable targets based on their scoring in our existing rankings. A goal of even 1% could be transformative for many nations.
We need to do a lot of calculation and analysis to produce ideal targets. But we cannot just do training for training's sake. Racking up numbers in terms of students served or courses delivered is an incomplete solution.
So, the plan is to:
- Select a few countries to develop IT-driven education and training programs
- Focus on a small number of key software technologies at each level of the modern software stack.
- Coordinate with investors, NGOs, and governments to achieve that critical balance between workforce skills and job opportunities.
With the cooperation of interested parties, jobs can be developed in software startups, enterprise IT in all industries, IoT and Manufacturing 4.0 hardware, and the enormous number of datacenters the world will need as data continues to grow rapidly.
Perhaps we will be able to contribute to improving the world, making it less unequal, in ways that benefit everyone. Over time, we will also be able to answer the question I posed in this article's title: how many people should work in IT?