Lowenstein's View: Are we headed for a mobile talent gap?

Typing "wireless" or "mobile" as a keyword into any major job search site yields more results than just about any employment category. There are tens--and more likely hundreds--of thousands of open positions. We might still be in the middle of a recession, but if you're a software, hardware, or RF engineer, know Java or Objective C, or have experience in application or user design, the world is your oyster.

There is little question that mobile, broadly defined, will be one of the leading sources of employment growth and opportunity over the next ten years. These are skilled, well-paying jobs. Which yields two key questions:

1) What are the skills required for those looking for a career in mobile?

2) What should we be doing to ensure there's adequate supply of talent to meet demand, considering this is one path out of our 8 percent unemployment doldrums?

Over the past couple of weeks, I have spoken to numerous hiring managers, started conversation topics on various relevant discussion sites, and poked around dozens of job boards for some insight on these questions. The unsurprising, but rather disturbing theme emerging from this (admittedly cursory) research is that demand far outstrips supply in the technical fields. Companies are scrambling for engineering and computer science talent. This is akin to the Web development boom that started in the late 1990s, except for one major difference--there are many more countries churning out those with the requisite technical skills than there were fifteen years ago. India, of course, but China, the Philippines, Israel, many countries in eastern Europe, and Brazil. One CTO of a budding mobile consulting firm said he is hiring developers in tiny Costa Rica, whose educational system outpaces that of many larger economies in its neighborhood.

Many companies I talked to would prefer to hire domestically, rather than outsource or have to manage a remote workforce. Which tells me that this is more an issue of skill set than one of finding someone elsewhere to do the same job at half the cost.  

This all tells me we need to be thinking more concretely about the supply side, particularly with regard to technical talent. The startling fact is that we have the leading university system in the world, yet are not churning out enough graduates with the desire or skill set to fill available positions in the technical disciplines. Instead, we have indebted students (and their parents), with increasingly less relevant liberal arts degrees, casting about for a shrinking supply of jobs in those fields, many ending up under- if not un- employed. Meanwhile, other countries' math and sciences programs have vaulted ahead of ours over the past generation, the results of which can be seen in test scores, and then, unsurprisingly, downstream in hiring patterns.

I think our educational system can be doing a lot more to develop programs geared toward areas we know there will be lots of opportunities for skilled, well-paying jobs over the next decade or more. Think mobile, cloud, digital media, application development. Consider the potentially transformative effects of tablet computers as an educational tool, and the potential opportunities that means for content creation. Digital and multimedia textbooks and training materials (such as Apple's initiative) are a brand new, tens-of-billions dollar market opportunity, requiring not just good writers and subject matter experts but those with skills in web/app development, programming, UI design, and so on.

Universities still have their core engineering and computer science programs, but are continually challenged to incorporate new programming languages into their curricula and develop tracks geared toward fast-growing areas. Community colleges and vocational schools could create certificates in "mobile app development", putting together a creative program drawing upon multiple disciplines from the arts and sciences. This is also a great opportunity for secondary schools to adapt and evolve their engineering and vocational programs toward the jobs of tomorrow rather than those of yesterday.

We have doubled per-pupil spending in public schools over the past fifteen years, yet from a technology standpoint most classrooms are significantly under-equipped. Kids and teens are experiencing--even driving--the mobile/digital/media revolution at home, yet more coordination and consistency is needed to harness these technologies as educational tools. There's also a huge mission to "train the teachers," which would involve a more intense and coordinated effort to incorporate technology into the curriculum of teacher education programs, as well as ongoing training courses for experienced teachers. 

So, perhaps it's time for the leaders in mobile and digital media to help define and communicate the skill set required to ensure they have an adequate funnel of talent to fuel their growth. Concomitantly, our government and educational infrastructure needs to more skillfully direct its efforts toward the areas of growing economic opportunity. For example, in the likely to be passed spectrum auction bill, why not allocate a modest percentage of the proceeds toward funding technology in the schools and teacher training programs? This would ultimately more than pay for itself in the form of skill set improvement, and ultimately narrow the gap between demand and supply, ensuring our continued leadership position in mobile computing.

Mark Lowenstein, a leading industry analyst, consultant, and commentator, is Managing Director of Mobile Ecosystem. Click here to subscribe to his free Lens on Wireless monthly newsletter, or follow him on Twitter at @marklowenstein.