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In this report, we use a three-part distinction with reference to IT occupations. “ITcore” occupations are those designated as information technology or information assurance occupations in the Pentagon’s IA (information assurance)/IT report (U.S. Office of the Secretary of Defense, 1999). The second category, “IT-related” occupations, includes occupations that rely extensively on IT in duty performance. There are no formal measures for determining what is “IT related,” so in defining this category, we have used our best judgment in identifying those occupations that on the surface are very reliant on IT. Such occupations include detection, surveillance, control, and intelligence functions. The third category, “nonIT,” includes those occupations that are less reliant on IT, even though many of these occupations may involve the use of IT in some capacity. Table 2.2 illustrates the distinctions among these three categories.
The evolution of the rangefinder in tanks provides an example of the use of IT within non-IT occupations, as was noted above. Over a course of decades, the rangefinder progressed from mechanical to laser to computer-aided laser and, as a result, became much easier for personnel to operate. Army Research Institute psychologists who were assigned to Fort Knox simplified the use of the rangefinder through a systematic, iterated analysis. As discussed by Davis and Wessel (1999), Table 2.2 IT-Core, IT-Related, and Examples of Other (Non-IT) Military Occupations
In the 1970s, the Army finally replaced the mechanical rangefinder in the Patton with a laser device. But the problem was, it took an M60 Patton crew twenty-three steps to turn on the finicky laser. In the 1980s, the M1 Abrams was outfitted with a new laser rangefinder, which took just three steps: turn on, point, and click a button to get distance readings. The Army discovered that the simplicity of the M1’s laser rangefinder, and other new systems, equalized the skill of gunners, regardless of their education and native talents.... ‘Any dummy could operate the M1,’ explains Lon E. Maggart, the blunt former commanding general of Fort Knox, the Army’s armored vehicle training center. ‘Your lowest-level soldier could operate this [M1] tank more efficiently than higher-level soldiers on old tanks. The Army made this tank so sophisticated that you just had to push a button.’3 The M1A2 succeeded the M1 and M1A1. Introduced in 1992, it has greater lethality and was engineered so that its complex systems “were simplified for use by ordinary Americans who receive little training” (Davis and Wessel, 1999, p. 25).
As this example suggests, the availability of IT means in many cases that formerly complex tasks (operating the M1) can now be performed by personnel with relatively low levels of IT skills and/or training (e.g., the ability to “push a button”).
What Effect Has IT Had on the Economy?
IT is important in part because of its positive impact on the economy. For years, the opposite was felt to be the case: Economists found little evidence that IT had much impact on economic growth. As Jorgenson noted, Nobelist Robert Solow lamented that “we see computers everywhere but in the productivity statistics,” an observation that came to be known as the Solow Paradox (Jorgenson, 2001; Solow, 1987). Recent research of Jorgenson and his colleagues, however, thoroughly documents the major role IT has played in U.S. economic growth. Most important, Jorgenson emphasizes the enormous price reductions that have accompanied the technological advance of IT. “Between 1974 and 1996 prices of memory chips decreased by a factor of 27,270 times or at 40.9 percent per year, while the implicit deflator for the gross domestic product (GDP) increased by almost 2.7 times or 4.6 percent per year!” Prices for logic chips decreased even faster (Jorgenson, 2001, p. 3).
Furthermore, following Bresnahan, research has found substantial technological opportunity for further improvement of IT, a feature that links IT closely to economic growth cycles (Bresnahan, undated). As a general-purpose technology, IT has an extremely wide variety of applications that support activities and advances in numerous other areas. Advances in IT facilitate innovations (“shift the innovation frontier”) rather than directly shifting the production frontier, and these innovations foster the coinvention of other applications. Expansion of the markets for these applications increases the demand for IT, which creates a dynamic feedback loop that raises the return for further innovation in IT. The transforming nature of IT through computing and telecommunications coupled with its ample opportunity for further technological improvement and its fast pace of advance have been key drivers of the revolution in military affairs.
The impact of IT on economic growth took a long time—from the 1970s to the 1990s—to become evident. Recent research on this topic provides some explanations for this
3The excerpt appears as: “Making It Simple: How Technology Will Make Life Better for Less Skilled Workers,” Army Times, May 18, 1998, pp. 24–25.
Issues and Practices in Managing IT Occupations: Views from the Literature 11
• Technological breakthroughs diffuse slowly because of “high learning costs associated with implementing the new technology” and because “part of this learning is social in that one draws lessons from others’ experience.” Therefore, a firm or individual has an incentive to delay in adapting in order to capitalize on the learning (trial-and-error efforts) of others (Ifo Institute for Economic Research, 2002).
• The high learning costs might actually cause a decrease in the measured rate of productivity as workers divert effort from production to learning (Greenwood and Yorukoglu, 1997).
What Effect Has IT Had on Wages?
The expansion of IT also appears to have been a key factor influencing both the relatively rapid growth of the wages of college-educated workers throughout the 1980s and into the early 1990s as well as an increase in wage dispersion. Economists have suggested two theoretical explanations for these trends. According to one theory, IT as a factor of production is more complementary with high-skilled labor than with low-skilled labor. The decline in the price of IT led to greater use of IT and induced greater demand for high-skilled labor than for low-skilled labor. Autor, Levy, and Murnane (2001), treating jobs in terms of the tasks they require rather than the educational credentials of those who hold the jobs, have argued that IT “substitutes for a limited and well-defined set of human activities, those involving routine (repetitive) cognitive and manual tasks,” and “complements activities involving nonroutine problem-solving and interactive tasks.” In commenting on the Autor, Levy, and Murnane work, the Ifo Institute for Economic Research noted that they found a high correlation between computerization at the industry level and a shift in the composition of labor input away from routine tasks in favor of nonroutine cognitive tasks. This is direct evidence that computers substitute for tasks performed by low-skilled workers and are complementary with tasks performed by highly educated workers (Ifo Institute for Economic Research, 2002, p. 62).
In related work, Bresnahan further explored the impact of IT on wage distribution, theorizing that IT had caused the “substitution of machine decision making for human decision making in low- and medium-skilled white collar work,” but had “not been substitutable for high levels of human cognitive skill in highly-rewarded tasks and occupations” (Bresnahan, 1997). He added that IT had also increased the demand for highly skilled workers by causing changes in the “organization of production at the firm, industry, and even multi-industry level.” Finally he noted that “these organizational changes increase the demand for many skills, not just the cognitive ones learned in school,” e.g., interpersonal and management skills, autonomy, and judgment.
Synthesizing these complementary arguments on the effect of IT on the wage distribution, it is possible to conclude that since workers might be considered to bring bundles of different skills to their jobs, the IT-driven change in the price of specific skills is responsible for the increase in the dispersion of wages.
12 Attracting the Best: How the Military Competes for Information Technology Personnel
IT Workers in the Private Sector
We now look more closely at discussions of IT workers from the private sector. We will first consider discussions of private-sector IT workers in the popular press, and we will then focus on two broad themes often raised in IT-related literature: the issue of a potential shortage of IT personnel and the issue of training and development opportunities in IT occupations.
Views from the Popular Press Much of the available literature concerning private-sector IT employees comes from the popular press, e.g., newspapers and trade magazines. In addition, this information comes in the form of advice or “tips” rather than data analysis. For example, the May 6, 2002, issue of Computerworld offers suggestions to employers on how to manage and motivate IT workers so as to maximize their potential contribution. Themes from the table of contents convey the
flavor of such advice:
• IT workers want an employer that can help them be a partner in their career goals.
• To keep workers motivated and loyal, the best employers give them access to hot projects that help advance their careers and stretch their skills.
• The best employers offer access to hot technology and deliver top-drawer training.
• These employers put balance in work and home life. The option to telecommute and a flexible work schedule top the list of low-cost benefits.
• The employers create diversity in culture and ideas.
• To retain top IT workers, the best employers offer more than good jobs—they help build exciting careers.
Although Computerworld’s suggestions are attractive at face value, they are observations based only on interviews and anecdotes. They are not accompanied by specifics on how to implement such changes and on the cost and benefit to the organization of doing so.
Nonetheless, it is not difficult to find real-world examples that reflect the recommendations. Often such examples have been used in the popular press to illustrate that the public sector is falling behind the private sector in attracting and managing IT employees.
For instance, an article in the Los Angeles Times reported that, “since the government lacks workers with the latest training, its systems tend to be behind the curve. And because the technology is outdated, the work is less attractive to younger computer professionals who put a high priority on keeping their skills current.” The article also cites the example of Dwayne Williams, 28, a specialist in network security, formerly with the Air Force, who left the military seeking not only more current technology but also “independence on the job, greater control of his work, and higher compensation” (Shogren, 1999).
While the popular literature often presents private-sector IT workers in a positive light, some stories have described areas of employee dissatisfaction. As one example, an online survey conducted by Computerworld in September and October of 1998 reveals that even as the dot-com boom built to its peak, many IT workers were dissatisfied with their salaries. Looking more closely at the issue of higher pay and compensation, a 1998 survey by the American Electronics Association (www.aeanet.org), covering more than 100 smaller high-tech companies with fewer than 500 employees, indicated that increases in pay typically Issues and Practices in Managing IT Occupations: Views from the Literature 13 took the form of a combination of higher salaries and higher specific pays, such as retention bonuses (including a skill premium pay), hiring bonuses, and project completion bonuses.