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3/2/2007
04:45 PM
Rob Preston
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Down To Business: Talent Shortage? Employers Must Take Some Of The Rap

Many tech pros are demoralized, thanks to knee-jerk offshore outsourcing and the post-bubble malaise. Employers must move beyond the "you should be happy you have a job" mentality.

Ask a dozen CIOs and tech vendor CEOs to identify their single most pressing challenge, and you'll likely get at least 10 different answers, right? Not exactly. In fact, they all come back to one overarching concern: finding, grooming, and retaining tomorrow's leaders.

I wrote a column on this subject last May, after five CEOs, in separate conversations, expressed their frustration with U.S. immigration policy, the U.S. education system, and other trends that influence their future labor pool. All these execs say they're preoccupied with building their next-generation tech workforces amid a looming talent shortage in the United States. I subsequently heard similar rumblings from six or seven CIOs.

A vast right-wing conspiracy? More like fear and loathing in tech America. The U.S. workforce is aging, and there aren't enough computer science and other technical college grads to replace retirees. It's still hard to get a U.S. work visa, and foreign nationals graduating from U.S. universities increasingly are returning home or heading to other countries.

The Technology CEO Council, an advocacy group that includes the chiefs of Dell, EMC, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Intel, and Sun Microsystems, last week called on the White House and Congress to grease the labor supply skids. Among their seven proposals for improving U.S. competitiveness were two related to the tech workforce: Increase funding for recruiting and developing math teachers, and change immigration laws to make it easier for foreign IT pros to work in the United States.

This column has long argued that the more talented technical people we can develop in, and attract to, this country, the better for the economy and its people--vendors, IT organizations, consumers. However, this looming labor shortage isn't just a straight supply problem. It's also an HR embarrassment. Instead of just wringing their hands about their labor challenges, employers need to look in the mirror.

For one thing, "employee engagement" is near an all-time low, observes Tom Casey, VP of human capital at the Concours Group. That's management consulting speak for the fact that tech pros are demoralized, thanks to knee-jerk offshore outsourcing and the post-bubble malaise. Many of their employers hail from the "you should be happy you have a job" school of management. As a result, Casey says, IT pros are all-too-anxious to switch companies, even careers. And given the market uncertainly, they're advising their kids to steer clear of the profession--at least according to many disillusioned readers who responded to my last column.

Casey also sees a mismatch of skills at play. IT pros were reared to be functionally technical but not strategic or innovative. But employers, who now expect their IT people to be both tech and business savvy, aren't investing in training and other programs to pull them along.

Sweeping government programs are all well and good, but individual employers must step up as well. Casey advises every business technology organization to conduct a comprehensive workforce study to identify weaknesses. For example, if your IT workforce is aging and your company's marginalizing or sunsetting those older workers, then it needs to rethink its HR approach. If it lacks certain expertise, consider building that in-house, under formal programs.

Companies must recruit differently as well. One idea Casey suggests: Look to local country clubs for retirees willing to put their business technology experiences and skills back to work part time. Overall, the "if we need them, we'll just go find them" employer mentality won't cut it anymore. Be proactive.

Meantime, if you can't find the right job but insist you have all the right skills and are doing all the right things (a common refrain among readers), "take a good look at the jobs you're pursuing and the competencies that you have," Casey says. "You need to consider re-inventing yourself"--yes, new skills, new locations, new industries. Employees must step up as well.

Rob Preston,
VP/Editor In Chief
rpreston@cmp.com


To find out more about Rob Preston, please visit his page.

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