Don’t Mind the IT Skills Gap: Hire for What Can’t Be Taught

Once talent is in the door, it’s up to organizations and IT leaders to cultivate their professional growth, including specific IT skills and domain knowledge.

Guest Commentary, Guest Commentary

July 3, 2019

4 Min Read

A decade on from the financial crisis, new graduates are entering a healthy job market, with more jobs available than candidates to do them. The problem is, only a small percentage of new candidates will have the specific skills companies are vying for. Businesses are struggling to find qualified candidates for technical positions, such as advanced analytics, artificial intelligence, and digital transformation, and new graduates may assume they are underqualified for the bulk of job offerings. Even in a robust economy, this increasing demand-supply gap poses a threat to business growth.

The problem -- or at least the problem that we can solve -- lies in how we look at degrees, and skills “required” for employment.

Companies should expect recruits to have skills that can’t be easily taught in a company. For example, skills that an educational institution can work on over the years, in the classroom and with the help of the students themselves. These are skills that shape what the brain looks like, not what’s stored in the brain.

Everything else should be the company’s job. The short-lived skills (and there are many today), and the skills that require actual work context to stick -- that’s what companies should do. And while many aren’t ready, waiting for universities to provide these skills isn’t a successful strategy. Companies should not waste interview time looking for those skills, or even worse, neglect talent that doesn’t have those.

Learning in school vs. learning during employment

Three groups of skillsets are sorely needed by organizations today. These include:

  1. Domain skills. This group covers everything specific to industry- and function-specific knowledge. For example, how enterprise financial planning works, and how collection for auto loans are performed.

  2. Deep technology and data methods. This category is the most straightforward and includes the hard knowledge of coding, for instance. The emphasis here is on “deep” IT knowledge, the type that allows people to be fully productive from day one on the job.

  3. Future-readiness skills. This includes collaboration, such as the ability to use social media tools, communication and storytelling, project management methods like Agile, and innovation practices like design thinking. Creative thinking, critical reasoning and the ability and willingness to learn. An understanding of psychology, and emotional intelligence all translate to success in the workplace, regardless of the specific industry. But also, the foundations of scientific, mathematical, statistical, and computing methods -- to create a long-lasting foundation. While these aren’t technical skills, they are brain-shapers to help people harness the collective intelligence of large groups. 

For the most part, new graduates will not have 1 and 2 in that group of skillsets. That’s okay. Each of these skillsets has specificities that are better suited for on-the-job learning anyway, where their objectives are clearly tangible. In general, most universities don’t -- and shouldn’t -- teach intricate professional and domain skills because they require deep contextualization and are subject to change within a few years. Learning an industry-specific software system in school, for example, would be beneficial only to a handful of graduates who land a job with a company that uses that specific software.

Instead, university faculty follow longer cycles and focus on research and the foundations of thinking. They should focus on transferring a broader set of future-readiness skills that enable a foundation for professionalism. And since that transfer might need to be lifelong, educational institutions might consider becoming more of a subscription-based model versus a one-time buy.

Companies should look for talent that exhibits the ability to successfully and rapidly adapt in a rapidly changing environment. This is a trait that can’t be built easily in a company because it comes from being curious and agile, and from having had the psychological safety to experiment. This comes more easily when a person is young, coached frequently, and in an educational environment. Everything else can be learned more efficiently through education during the first years of work and funded by keeping the entry-level salaries lower where necessary.

Enterprises’ role in closing the gap

The only constant in the workplace is human behavior and motivation. Any candidate with those skills and some technical foundation, and who showcases strong future-readiness skills, can add tremendous value to an organization.

These people shouldn’t be shy to apply for their dream job, and companies shouldn’t hesitate to hire them. Once talent is in the door, it’s up to organizations to cultivate their professional growth. From HR departments to the C-Suite, businesses must prioritize the creation and adoption of new learning architectures that contextualize learning, while ensuring the hiring teams change their selection criteria. Closing the skills gap depends on it.

Gianni Giacomelli serves as Chief Innovation Leader where he drives and sponsors Genpact’s strategic initiatives aimed at sustaining clients’ transformation into digitally-enabled companies. These include among others design-driven digital transformation efforts and methods that consider the human and organizational side of technological change. Giacomelli also co-leads the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) efforts to set up a Collective Intelligence Design Lab -- aimed at exploring and designing combined people-machine groups that are able to generate radical innovation.

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Guest Commentary

Guest Commentary

The InformationWeek community brings together IT practitioners and industry experts with IT advice, education, and opinions. We strive to highlight technology executives and subject matter experts and use their knowledge and experiences to help our audience of IT professionals in a meaningful way. We publish Guest Commentaries from IT practitioners, industry analysts, technology evangelists, and researchers in the field. We are focusing on four main topics: cloud computing; DevOps; data and analytics; and IT leadership and career development. We aim to offer objective, practical advice to our audience on those topics from people who have deep experience in these topics and know the ropes. Guest Commentaries must be vendor neutral. We don't publish articles that promote the writer's company or product.

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