When people discuss the IT skills shortage, they're typically talking about the technical chops that set IT pros apart from the rest of the working world: big data and analytics, cloud computing, software development, operations, information security, and so forth.
They're probably not thinking of things like teamwork.
Yet a recent IT employment report from industry association CompTIA suggested that so-called "soft" skills -- non-technical abilities such as effective written and oral communications or project management -- are a big deal for employers, and a big challenge in the IT labor market. Soft skills ranked as the fifth-largest hiring challenge for the 400 human resources professionals surveyed in CompTIA's HR Perceptions of IT Training & Certification Study (registration required), beating out issues such as salary alignment and competition from larger companies. For comparison, hard skills ranked second, with appropriate work experience as the top headache when recruiting and hiring IT pros.
No matter which side you take in the IT skills shortage debate, hiring managers say obstacles to finding and retaining tech talent are real. In that same CompTIA report, 93% of HR respondents reported challenges in finding the right IT job candidates during the previous 12 months, with more than two thirds of them saying it was "very challenging" to fill their IT job openings.
"There is a fairly tight hiring environment for IT positions," said Tim Herbert, VP of research and market intelligence at CompTIA, in an interview. "When you get down into certain skills, it becomes even more acute."
There are a lot of job openings, too, according to CompTIA's IT Employment Snapshot for Q1 2015. There were more than 850,000 open IT positions in the US in Q1, based on data from Burning Glass Technologies Labor Insights. And, yes, if you're hiring a Java developer, you're going to need to find someone who knows how to write the code, among other abilities. Chances are you're also going to want someone who can communicate with the rest of the business, derive meaning from data, solve problems as they arise, and adapt to changing business conditions.
For example, if you want to be a viable candidate for this current opening for a Java developer at health insurance giant Aetna, you're going to need experience in Java 1.5 or above, object-oriented design, Web containers such as Tomcat, frameworks like Spring, Hibernate, and Junit, among other technical skills. You'll also find this desired skill right alongside those Java fundamentals: "excellent verbal and written communication skills." The listing also includes foundational business skills such as "creating accountability," "turning data into information," and "communicating for impact."
The underlying challenge with soft skills, for employers and IT pros alike is they're often vaguely defined. There are plenty of ways to determine if your potential Java developer knows her stuff: Check references, give a code test in the interview, check out her Github or other code samples, and so forth. But how do you tell if someone has initiative? We all think we know what the term means, especially in a work context, but our definitions probably differ. It's an inherent abstraction. Even the definition of a seemingly clear-cut ability such as problem-solving will vary based on the organization and other variables and, according to Herbert, may be a proxy for a wider set of business needs and employee attributes. The very phrase "soft skills" could use a rebranding -- it sounds vague and even suggests a lack of importance, which clearly isn't the case for many employers.
Indeed, companies can improve how they define what they really want when it comes to skills such as problem solving or flexibility. Likewise, IT pros can do a better job of developing and showcasing such skills as part of their career trajectory. This can be done in a variety of ways, including taking online courses (many of them free or low-cost); joining local tech associations and networking groups; taking advantage of corporate training and education; or getting involved with work projects that will require you to develop skills and give you new bullet points for the resume. For example, if you've been stuck in a functional IT silo, volunteer for a project that will require working with an interdisciplinary team, especially if it involves working closely with other business units such as finance or customer service. Now, you've got credible evidence of "teamwork" -- one of the soft skills employers are definitely looking for.
Herbert of CompTIA noted a general shift in the role of IT and the skill set required for the future. The days of corporate IT as a back-office or support function are waning as technology becomes more pervasive throughout organizations. Strategic IT pros can no longer simply "work with the business" -- they need to be an integral part of the business. Whether you're pursuing a strategic priority with the CFO or working face-to-face with external customers, soft skills become critical for success.
"[Companies] are so reliant on technology that they have to make the IT side and the business side work more efficiently than may have been possible [in the past]," Herbert said.
Building the right soft skills will help top IT talent stand out in the modern era and, to use our aforementioned example one more time, avoid being pigeonholed as "just a Java developer," a reductive label that likely doesn't reflect your actual value. Using information supplied by CompTIA, which typically relies on a mix of surveys and interviews, Bureau of Labor Statistics data, and Burning Glass Technologies Labor Insights tracking of job postings, we've identified eight crucial, non-technical skills that companies are looking for in their IT hires.