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3/24/2006
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IT Recruiting Changes In The Outsourcing Era

IT executives pick entry-level workers based on tech skills, but they value business skills more highly.

A CIO complains about poor communication skills and lack of business knowledge among the team. The CIO says those are the critical skills least likely to be outsourced. The CIO then hires entry-level people--and focuses entirely on technical skills like programming that are most likely to be outsourced.

This disconnect is reality at most companies. That's one of the intriguing findings in a research project backed by the Society for Information Management and carried out by a team of 19 academics. The study asked 89 top IT executives what skills they most value, with the goal of helping IT workers and universities adapt to market changes such as global sourcing, declining IT enrollments at U.S. colleges, and baby boomer retirements.

At the entry level, the study raises questions about how companies will nurture IT talent if they're outsourcing many routine tech jobs entry-level staff used to do. Of the 10 top skills most often cited for entry-level workers, only one is nontechnical: communication, cited by less than a third. Programming is No. 1, cited by almost half. But programming also is the most likely skill to be outsourced.

"When they hire at the entry level, they're only looking at technical skills," says Kate Kaiser, a professor of IT management at Marquette University and one of the study's leaders. "But they want them to become project managers."

When people move up to midlevel positions, the skills most sought after mirror those most critical to keep in-house: project skills, industry or functional knowledge, and high-level tech skills, the study finds.

Companies still are learning how to balance the cost savings they get from outsourcing a project with the need to develop in-house talent and skills, says Stephen Pickett, Penske's CIO and president of SIM. "There's a strong concern about building a strong bench," he says. Pickett doubts IT departments have found the right balance yet. While other parts of the business have been doing this kind of make-versus-buy analysis for decades, outsourcing on the scale possible today is a fairly new opportunity. "It's an immature science," he says.

Business skills dominate the list of skills most critical to keep in-house. Systems analysis and systems design are the only technical ones to show up on the list of the 20 skills deemed most critical. The picture is different at small businesses, which are less likely to outsource and more likely to use the help desk as a training ground, Kaiser says. And Pickett warns against students not spending enough time building their technical base. "I'm a firm believer in learning how to learn a technology," he says. He cites RFID; few business IT people studied it, but they knew how to get up to speed to apply it to a business problem.

Kaiser hopes universities consider the report when assessing whether they're teaching students the skills employers want. "We have to have our students prepared to work with people globally," she says. "It's not nice to have, it's required."

And existing business-technology workers had better steer their careers toward skills least likely to be outsourced or sent offshore.

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