The Hardest Job To Fill In 2012? A Look At The Supply of Web Developers

Keith Cline at has a fresh look at one of the enduring, and perplexing, stories of 2011 — the skills shortage. Even with 13.3 million Americans unemployed, and millions more underemployed, there are industries severely lacking in skilled talent.

Cline provided five loose job titles/duties that employers will have a hard time filling as 2012 starts. Chief among them: software engineers and web developers.

Writes Cline, “The demand for top-tier engineering talent sharply outweighs the supply in almost every market especially in San Francisco, New York, and Boston.  This is a major, major pain point and problem that almost every company is facing, regardless of the technology ‘stack’ their engineers are working on.”

Exacerbating the apparent problem is that the four other job areas that Cline mentions are often related to high-tech industries and web development — creative design/user experience, product management (particularly of the consumer web/e-commerce/mobile variety), web-savvy marketing, and analytics.

But is there really a skill shortage in these areas across the US, or is it a matter of firms not wanting to budge on wages? As Brian Kelsey recently pointed out, “A talent shortage, and a talent shortage at the wages you are willing to pay, are usually two separate issues.”

Let’s focus on web developers, and see what job and wage trends show. Working with EMSI’s occupation data, which is based on classifications from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are three primary job codes for developers: 1) computer programmers; 2) software developers, applications; and 3) software developers, systems software.

According to EMSI’s most recent figures, software developers have performed better in the job market than computer programmers. Software developer jobs have been steadily growing nationally in recent years — after a dip in 2008 — while computer programmer jobs (the blue line in the chart below) have been stagnant or in decline since the economic downturn.

On average nationally, these jobs pay between $33 per hour (for programmers) and $44 per hour (for systems software developers). The top 10 percent of workers in these fields make on average $51 to $64 per hour. Among the largest 100 metro areas in the US, San Jose ($55.48), Bridgeport, Conn. ($49.48), and Boston ($46.58) pay the highest median earnings for developers.

These are solid baseline figures. But what about the supply issue?

One way to determine labor shortages is by analyzing historic wages, coupled with employment trends, for an occupation; if wages are increasing over time, that’s a good sign of unmet demand in the market and hence, a shortage. The reason: demand from employers for additional workers would be so great that it would push up wages.

We looked at median earnings for programmers and computer software engineers from 2000-2010 using the BLS’ Current Population Survey (CPS) dataset, a monthly survey of US households. Adjusted for inflation, CPS data* shows programmers’ wages have essentially been flat (2% growth) since 2000. It’s a different story for software engineers; their wages increased 13% from 2000 to 2010.

But for both programmers and software engineers, real wages have declined since 2004. This make sense given the stagnant employment picture for programmers. Yet for software engineers, employment has increased more than 6% since 2009 while wages have held steady in recent years.

If there is indeed the major undersupply that Cline and others have argued, wages would not be stagnant but continuing to rise (and probably rising sharply). That appeared to happen in the early 2000s — but not recently.

* Note: Current Population Survey wage estimates are different than the above-mentioned hourly earnings that EMSI reports in its complete employment dataset. EMSI’s figures, which include proprietors, come from the BLS’ Occupational Employment Statistics dataset and the Census’ American Community Survey.