New IT Skills: Why Communication, Accountability, Initiative Are Hot Now - InformationWeek
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5/28/2015
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Kevin Casey
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New IT Skills: Why Communication, Accountability, Initiative Are Hot Now

Using Bureau of Labor Statistics data and information supplied by CompTIA and Burning Glass Technologies Labor Insights, we've identified eight crucial, non-technical skills that companies are looking for in their IT hires.
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(Image: Flazingo)

(Image: Flazingo)

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.

Skill Shift

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.

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

We welcome your comments on this topic on our social media channels, or [contact us directly] with questions about the site.
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vnewman2
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vnewman2,
User Rank: Ninja
6/8/2015 | 3:26:12 PM
Re: New IT Skills: Why Communication, Accountability, Initiative Are Hot Now
A "skill" I don't hear much about but is of critical importance in my view is the ability to use email efficiently. I am frustrated daily at certain coworkers inability to do things like write a succinct email, stop themselves from sending what amounts to a random stream of consciousness, or know when an email requires a response and when it doesn't. The amount of replies that I get saying "thanks!" or "noted" is obscene. I've resorted to putting a disclaimer at the bottom of my emails that are strictly informational which says "No response required." I feel this should go without saying - but clearly I am wrong!
vnewman2
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vnewman2,
User Rank: Ninja
6/8/2015 | 1:10:24 PM
Re: New IT Skills: Why Communication, Accountability, Initiative Are Hot Now
@David - I think this is also the problem when people become managers, especially in IT. As discussed on "IT Life Radio: Be A Better Manager" regarding the book "The Unbossy Boss: 12 Powerful Questions to Make You a Better Manager," the reason most people are promoted into managerial positions is they were high performing individuals. That doesn't translate well into "high performing manager of other people" or even "works well with other people." But yes, grading "group" work is near impossible to do in the traditional sense of grading. Whenever I was put into those situations I ended up being the workhorse in a stable of ponies.
PedroGonzales
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PedroGonzales,
User Rank: Ninja
6/4/2015 | 9:52:57 PM
Re: New IT Skills: Why Communication, Accountability, Initiative Are Hot Now
I think some college students, still in high school mode.  The problem is that if they do not take such activities seriously they will really have to pay when they are in a real project in the REAL world.  Technical skills can only get you so far, the higher you go on a company the more important soft skills become. Probably companies do not want to spend money training on soft skills.
SaneIT
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SaneIT,
User Rank: Ninja
6/3/2015 | 7:53:57 AM
Re: New IT Skills: Why Communication, Accountability, Initiative Are Hot Now
Luckily my kids are too young for finding parties but that's kind of along my point.  They can find the social connections easily but school/work/task connections don't come so easily.  They know who they like to hang out with but they can't tell you who might have answers to those "not so fun" questions.  They are very good at the social side and I see adults who are this way as well, they know who they like to work with because of personalities but they have trouble telling you who has the information they need to get a job done.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
6/2/2015 | 1:05:16 PM
Re: New IT Skills: Why Communication, Accountability, Initiative Are Hot Now
@SaneIT- Well, i don't know your kids, so Ic an't comment on them specifically. But i've noticed suddenly kids seem to be able to come up with their network when they want to know where the party is at.
SaneIT
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SaneIT,
User Rank: Ninja
6/2/2015 | 8:47:40 AM
Re: New IT Skills: Why Communication, Accountability, Initiative Are Hot Now
My kids know how to work are all excellent students but if they miss a day of school it's like they have no idea who their classmates are or how to network with them.  They can do the work and they are very social but getting the right information from the right people is something I see them as well as their friends struggle with.  They are convinced that they don't know anyone who could tell them what an assignment was for the day but with some prodding I can usually get them to name a friend who has the same teacher in a different block and they can get the work.  They have trouble expanding the net and I see this with their friends as well.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
6/1/2015 | 5:34:27 PM
Re: New IT Skills: Why Communication, Accountability, Initiative Are Hot Now
@vnewman2- Sadly, if you look at paychecks it is clear there's no way to assign grades fairly in group work anywhere. :)
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
6/1/2015 | 5:31:43 PM
Re: New IT Skills: Why Communication, Accountability, Initiative Are Hot Now
@SaneIT- I don't think it is about not being able to do work that way, but about the fact that they are kids and don't care about the work. i think if you instill in them a work ethic and a little experience, collaboration tools aren't their problem.
Kelly22
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Kelly22,
User Rank: Strategist
6/1/2015 | 1:27:36 PM
Re: New IT Skills: Why Communication, Accountability, Initiative Are Hot Now
Group projects are tough to judge. I remember having one teacher who gave individual and group grades for group projects. Each group had to divide up the work, and every student had to submit an individual report on top of the group presentation. Then we all had to write a paragraph on how the group worked together and where there were problems. It was a lot more work (for the teacher and us students) but at least everyone was graded fairly.
SaneIT
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SaneIT,
User Rank: Ninja
6/1/2015 | 8:22:03 AM
Re: New IT Skills: Why Communication, Accountability, Initiative Are Hot Now
I'm going to argue that they need help on getting work done that way rather than just chatting that way.  I know that my kids can text, IM, etc with the best of them but ask them to find out what their homework assignment for the night is and they are lost.  Learning how to use those contacts to find what you need is something they tend to lack and I see this with their friends too.  They know how to engage socially at a casual level but have trouble connecting the dots to get specific chunks of information.  Adults tend to be bad at this too so maybe this is something we need to cover a bit more in school.
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