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6 Ways To Develop Internal IT Talent

You may have no one to blame but yourself for that supposed IT skills shortage. Even SMBs can find low-cost training options.

Kevin Casey

August 23, 2013

6 Min Read

 IT Careers: 8 Steps Toward New Business Roles

IT Careers: 8 Steps Toward New Business Roles


IT Careers: 8 Steps Toward New Business Roles (click image for larger view)

If your company faces an IT skills shortage, it may be time to take a long, honest look within.

Are you investing in your employees and their professional development? Does your organization create real incentives for technology innovation? Do you encourage staff to learn new technologies and IT skills, even if they're not explicitly relevant to a person's job description?

If you answered with a shoulder shrug, you may have no one to blame but yourself for that supposed skills shortage. You're also likely leaving lots of opportunities untapped. Prioritizing and rewarding employee skills development can improve hiring and retention, for starters. It can also help build internal technical expertise, even in organizations that lack a robust centralized IT department. Take heed, small and midsize business (SMB) pros.

"I am a firm believer that technology-savvy people are always looking to improve their knowledge and work with cutting-edge technology," said Rona Borre, CEO and founder of IT recruitment firm Instant Technology, in an email interview.

[ Feeling stuck? It may be time to take things into your own hands. See 9 Tips To Avoid IT Midcareer Slump. ]

Creating that kind of environment is easy to not do. Doing so requires the right mindset and a commitment of time and, in some instances, money. But Borre said it's also a matter of scale, meaning that a 50-person company doesn't have to go punch for punch with Google's HR operations to create a culture of learning and innovation.

"A lot of times, [SMBs] think they don't have the time or resources to invest in these types of training; however, that's not the case," Borre said. "These things, as well as many other training activities, are all about scale and can be done to fit any IT department size and budget. They lead to more efficient and knowledgeable employees, making the businesses better in the process."

Read on for six ideas from Borre on how to do just that.

1. Offer Real Training Opportunities

Training's one of those dangerous words in the corporate vocabulary. It sounds boring and bureaucratic -- and it often is, which is a problem. It's also easy to drop a pile of software documentation on someone's desk and call it "training." But that won't cut it.

"It must be quality training. Don't hand them a manual and ask them to read it or make them sit in a classroom for eight hours straight," Borre said. "Actually provide them with exciting training they want to take. This should be done often and in every IT department no matter the size, as the IT environment is constantly changing." You could poll employees periodically to find out which areas they'd like to learn more about, such as security or data analytics. Borre also suggested offering serious skills development opportunities -- again, no "read the manual" approaches -- as a performance bonus for employees that meet or exceed certain goals.

2. Send Employees Back To School

"One way employers can help their employees out is by offering them some type of educational benefit," Borre said. This will usually cost money, of course, but Borre noted that you can offset some of that budget if the educational programs qualify for a pre-tax educational benefit.

"This makes the employee happy and also allows them to get a fresh take on today's IT solutions and practices from someone outside of the organization," Borre said. "They can then bring what they learned back to the workplace to share." 3. Enable Job Description Creep

This one's a no-brainer for SMBs that already ask employees to fill multiple roles: Encourage technology skills development by empowering employees to spend time learning or working on projects that don't have an immediate connection to their current job description.

"[Offer employees] hands-on experience outside of their day-to-day tasks. For instance, have them create a mobile application for the firm or get involved with a [technology] pilot project," Borre said. "Learning is a process, so having them apply their knowledge in more [real-world] scenarios will help them feel more comfortable experimenting with [new] technology."

4. Do Lunch-and-Learns

Borre recommends the lunch-and-learn approach for SMBs with limited financial resources to put into skills development. This entails inviting guest speakers and presenters to your offices to share their expertise on a topic and answer questions. (It doesn't have to be held during lunch hour, but that's a logical place to start.) "Not only are these enjoyable, as it gives employees a break in the day, they're also very affordable if the firm can find a local speaker to volunteer to talk about the subject for free," Borre said.

You can use a similar model when employees attend conferences or local meet-ups, or if you're providing them with educational assistance: "Having a lunch and learn to allow the person to share what they learned and answer questions is a great way to allow the rest of the company to benefit from one person's educational experience," Borre added.

5. Consider Prizes For IT Innovation

Consider offering financial or other incentives for employees or teams that solve specific business challenges with IT innovation. Enable the entrepreneurial mindset in your employees -- something that should be a natural fit for many SMBs -- and you might find returns on the investment in unlikely places.

"Many large enterprises have incubators and run contests for a financial prize or the opportunity to present to the CEO, something that needs to trickle down to [SMBs]," Borre said. "This will allow for a fresh and exciting environment, along with keeping your technology workforce skills cutting-edge."

6. Make Professional Development Part Of Your Culture

A longer-term payoff of fostering internal skills development: It can revamp a dysfunctional or staid organizational culture. Employees will replace "I wish we had someone who knew how to do that" with "How do we learn how to do that?" So even if your company doesn't have a team of, say, data scientists on the payroll, employees can still make data-driven decisions.

"Corporate cultures that have innovation labs or other places to conceptualize ideas allow employees to cultivate their interest in top tech trends," Borre said. "These also allow employees with similar interests and ideas to get together."

This in turn can help attract the next wave of talent to your organization, especially if you're looking to hire younger workers. "Young talent will want a casual, fun, flexible and innovative work environment," Borre said. "If employers can provide this type of culture with the training they need and want, they are more likely to not only attract top talent, but also hang onto it."

About the Author(s)

Kevin Casey

Contributor

Kevin Casey is a writer based in North Carolina who writes about technology for small and mid-size businesses.

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