In an eyebrow-raising forecast, Gartner researchers said they believe that as many as 50 percent of the IT operational jobs in the U.S. could disappear over the next two decades because of improvements in data center technologies.
Donna Scott, a Gartner analyst, said IT workers face a situation similar to that in the manufacturing field, which has lost jobs over the past several decades as automation has improved. Similarly, standardization of IT infrastructure, applications and processes will lead to productivity improvements and a major shift in skill needs, she said.
"There will be more room to automate, and that means there will be reduced labor cost," said Scott. "This is a long-term change."
Gartner calls this change "real-time infrastructure," which involves service-oriented architectures, the elimination of communications barriers and dynamic alignment of IT with business priorities. Technologies enabling the shift have less need for human intervention because they are more intelligent and can automatically provision services and self-heal.
IT operations, which encompass areas such as systems administration, incident response and change management, today account for about 55 percent of an IT department's labor cost, said Scott, who spoke at the Stamford, Conn.-based research firm's annual data center conference here in Las Vegas.
But as companies improve automation, IT operations become "more like a factory," said Scott. Demand will grow for employees who have IT architecture skills as well as those with business and customer-liaison knowledge. Project management, for instance, will rise in terms of the percentage of IT labor costs, she said.
There were some 1,500 people at the conference, and reaction to Gartner's vision of a highly automated data center varied.
"Like most of the Gartner stuff, it's sort of an Utopian state -- we're certainly not there yet," said Stevan Lewis, director of enterprise planning for BMO Financial Group, a 34,000-employee financial services company in Scarborough, Ontario.
Lewis said he believes that some operational jobs will shift to other IT areas but that it will be about 25 percent and will affect mostly low-end work.
The Gartner forecast prompted Ken Wagner, manager of the data center at Kawasaki Motors, to talk about the changes he has seen in IT over the 35 years he has been in the business -- especially those brought by the Web. "There's been so much change in the last 10 years ... it's amazing," he said.
Considering these IT changes, Gartner may be right about the future of operational jobs, said Wagner, "but I don't know if anyone knows the real direction."
But Walter Wilson, deputy CIO of Ventura, is training his IT staff to handle different, more sophisticated jobs in their data center, which supports more than 8,000 users, particularly as they begin virtualizing IT systems.
"It's a training issue more than anything else," said Wilson, "because all these people are very capable."