The IT Talent Shortage Debate - InformationWeek

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IT Leadership // Team Building & Staffing
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The IT Talent Shortage Debate

Tech employers say good people are hard to find. Job hunters see a broken hiring process. Both sides need to shake their frustration and find new ways to connect.

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Talk to employers and job hunters about the state of the IT talent market, and you hear two words repeatedly: speed and pain. IT leaders must staff projects quickly, often requiring specialized skills that most job hunters -- especially generalists or those looking to change tech tracks -- don't have.

As a result, hiring organizations see an IT talent shortage, while job hunters insist that employers are botching the hiring process, screening out too many good candidates. Both sides agree on one thing: They're frustrated.

Third-party recruiters say that while IT leaders cry shortage and job hunters cry foul, the job slots sit empty for too long, hurting business results and team morale. But they doubt the picture will change unless hiring managers get more creative and realistic, and job hunters come to a fuller understanding of market realities.

Which brings us back to the question: Is there an IT talent crunch? It's a simple question with no simple answer. InformationWeek asked the IT community: Do you see an IT talent shortage today in one or more technology areas important to your business? Yes, said 73% of respondents at companies with fewer than 1,000 employees, and a whopping 88% of respondents at larger companies.

But is a botched hiring process aggravating this talent shortfall? Business technologists are sharply divided: About half of survey respondents at those larger companies see it as broken or too stringent, while 45% of the folks at smaller companies see things that way.

Any discussion of IT hiring must include what companies are willing to pay to fill open positions. Ron Hira, a professor of public policy at Howard University and a longtime critic of the H-1B visa program, recently called the IT talent shortage "imaginary," a front for companies that want to hire relatively inexpensive foreign guest workers. Norman Matloff, a computer science professor at the University of California at Davis who collaborates with Hira, takes the argument a step further: "The biggest single problem, as I've said before, is age discrimination," Matloff says. "The employers typically define job openings to be entry level, automatically rejecting those at the midcareer level."

Another disliked hiring tactic is a "purple squirrel" hunt, whereby companies seek a job candidate whose mix of skills and experience is impossible to find. "The 'purple squirrel' job postings arise in many cases because HR needs a way to thin out the mountains of applicants that they have," Matloff says. "So again, the claimed shortage is actually an embarrassment of riches."

Talk with employers and recruiters and you hear a more nuanced story. It's not just about how many IT job applicants are in the US talent pool, or about salaries, but how the IT hiring process has changed in recent years. Like them or not, would-be applicants need to know the rules of today's employment game.

Need for speed
"This kind of feels like 1999 or 2007," says Matt Rivera, VP of marketing at IT staffing firm Yoh. "… The technologies are moving so fast, it's hard for [employers and job hunters] to keep up. It's hard to engage that talent pool far enough ahead of the need."

IT organizations are under intense pressure to deliver projects faster than before -- and that need for speed necessarily influences IT hiring. The IT generalists, and even some topic generalists, such as infrastructure managers, have found their roles left by the side of the road, as project leaders hire for deep experience in specific niches, such as cloud security, DevOps, and data analysis and architecture.

"There's a lot of desperation on both sides out there," Rivera says. One sign of that desperation: 63% of IT hiring managers reported catching lies on resumés, according to a recent Harris Poll/CareerBuilder survey. IT candidates rank as the third biggest liars; only financial services and hospitality candidates fib more, according to the survey.

"The trend has gone into more specialized skill sets," says Asal Naraghi, director of talent acquisition for healthcare services company Best Doctors. As an HR pro, she "absolutely" sees an IT talent shortage. "In terms of being able to innovate, the tools that are out there are more complex," she says. "What are your competitors doing? You have to keep up with that. We also focus on people who are a culture fit with us and are passionate about our mission."

She gives the example of a recent search for a user-experience expert, a talent category that's in high demand as companies prioritize mobile development. The position had been outsourced -- and after interviews, the company kept it outsourced, she says, because it didn't find a person with deep skills and a fit with the company's mission.

CIOs echo the need for deep experience. "The broader skill sets, I think you'll see those in analyst roles, Scrum-master-type roles …some management roles," says David Wright, CIO of McGraw-Hill Education. "But more and more, the hands-on coders, we're looking for people who are just really deep in whatever discipline we're trying to hire."

Giorgos Zacharia, CTO of online travel company Kayak, says he's having a hard time finding UI engineers and mobile developers, noting that he seeks both entry-level and experienced people. Kayak offers great perks and pays generously, he says, yet the company still struggles to fill open slots even with its proximity to Boston and wealth of local universities. Paying dividends for Kayak are the three internal recruiters it has hired since 2013 and the hackathons it has attended to connect with talented IT pros.

Even so, Zacharia this year turned to holders of H-1B visas -- which let non-US citizens work in the US in a specialized field for up to six years -- to fill six slots, and he expects the company to do about the same level of H-1B hiring in 2015. Kayak is also hiring more people overseas, especially in Berlin, he says.

Seeking Mr. Right
For employers, hiring can feel like dating: You spend a long time looking for the perfect match. But how many chances will you take? How flexible will employers be during the hiring process? This is where both the recruiters and the job seekers voice exasperation.

Tracy Cashman, senior VP and partner in the IT search practice of WinterWyman, sees a genuine talent shortage. "There are more jobs than people who are skilled," she says. While she's starting to see an uptick in engineering graduates, "we've been feeling this since the [dot-com] bubble burst," Cashman says, when college students were worried that all IT jobs would move to India. "And we're still fighting that," she says.

On the flip side, some employers have become "persnickety," says Cashman, who advises CIOs to remove their perfection goggles. Companies wait too long to fill open positions, which not only hurts the business but also heaps extra work on the existing team. Delays also turn off qualified candidates, who assume that if a slot is open too long it's like an unsold house that has "issues."

You don't see the "best available athlete" mentality, Cashman laments, referring to the professional sports strategy of signing the best player available rather than hiring a lesser player to fill a specific position. Hire a smart, creative person who's eager to learn, and train that person on the rest, she advises clients, before the other valuable people on your team walk out or you blow the business deadline.

What are the ramifications of the so-called IT talent shortage and unfilled slots? Among the respondents to our survey who work at large companies, 79% cited delayed IT projects, 48% cited poor-quality IT projects, and 33%

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Laurianne McLaughlin currently serves as's Editor-in-Chief, overseeing daily online editorial operations. Prior to joining InformationWeek in May, 2011, she was managing editor at Her writing and editing work has won multiple ASBPE (American ... View Full Bio

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IW Pick
User Rank: Apprentice
11/3/2014 | 9:04:42 AM
Misdefined Talent Shortage
As an educator (35 years), I see no talent shortage.  Indeed, technical graduates in Computer Science, Database Analytics, and similar fields (some bachelor's degrees, some master's degrees) cannot find work (except as restuarant servers).  There certainly IS a shortage of these graduates willing to work in IT for $11/hour.
User Rank: Apprentice
11/3/2014 | 9:39:02 AM
Poor IT Management, Lazy HR
"IT leaders must staff projects quickly"
Only if they're poor managers who haven't been doing any PLANNING.

"often requiring specialized skills that most job hunters -- especially generalists or those looking to change tech tracks -- don't have."
Only under poor management who haven't been doing any internal TRAINING.

"As a result, hiring organizations see an IT talent shortage"
In my neighborhood there's a shortage of kids who can mow my lawn perfectly in less than 15 minutes. For $10.
User Rank: Author
11/3/2014 | 10:09:00 AM
Re: Poor IT Management, Lazy HR
Salary of course plays a large role here. Are companies unrealistic? We asked our survey respondents: "What factors other than an IT talent shortage create significant obstacles to hiring at your organization?" About 50% said "Our salaries are too low." That's telling.
David F. Carr
David F. Carr,
User Rank: Author
11/3/2014 | 10:32:52 AM
Oddly specific
I've always been puzzled by the over-emphasis on checklists of different tools or even programming languages the ideal candidate is supposed to have experience with. IT is a learning profession, and what companies should prize above all is the ability to adapt to a different tool set or programming language as needed to solve specific business problems.

Harder to make that into a list of bullet points for a job description, I suppose.
IW Pick
User Rank: Ninja
11/3/2014 | 11:06:58 AM
Re: Oddly specific
I agree that the job descriptions seems to be for people with multiple skills and experience.  It seems they are really looking for a purple mouse.  Right now, I have notice it is about who you know?  In order for job candidates to pass the resume filter.  For me, it seems like trying to climb the Great Wall of china. 
Lorna Garey
Lorna Garey,
User Rank: Author
11/3/2014 | 12:57:22 PM
Re: Oddly specific
I think companies worry about hiring smart people and spending a chunk of cash on training, only to have that person then jump to a higher-paying job elsewhere. However, I don't think the answer is "don't train," I think it's "Train, then treat and pay people well so they want to stay." It's not all about money.
User Rank: Apprentice
11/3/2014 | 1:02:12 PM
Specialist or generalist?
Seems like the wrong question to me. What happens when the coder with guru Python skills isn't "relevant" anymore because some new hot thing has come along and all the IT herds start chasing THAT?  Suddenly the specialist is on the out. On the other hand, the generalist can't do the very specific tasks that are in the queue.

HR should not be looking for either, They should be looking for candidates that are adaaptable, are quick to learn and have a foundation of good work habits. Companies would do better stop looking at developers, admins, architects - anyone in the IT services stack - as fungible resources to plug in and out of projects as needed. Instead they should be building teams that can work together over the long haul. This grates against the acolytes of The Bottom Line because employees are expenses to be minimized, not assets to utlized at their greatest potential. 
User Rank: Ninja
11/3/2014 | 1:38:32 PM
Industry is whining about a talent shortage - really?  Hello and welcome to 1999.  LOL I guess when you toss away the employment applications of anyone over age 30 and/or rule out the other half of the population that is female, then it can be called a talent "shortage," but the reality is that this has been the mantra of the IT industry since qualified applicants could demand over $10.00/hr. for a job in tech.  Now it's just all about bringing in the cheaper foreign workers on an H1B visa instead of hiring qualified Americans regardless of gender.  
User Rank: Ninja
11/3/2014 | 2:03:30 PM
Re: Specialist or generalist?
The specialization has gotten out of control in IT. There are so many technologies now and companies seem to want to match up exactly with what you have done. It used to be if you were a programmer, it didn't matter what language because it was assumed you could program in any language, whether you'd ever done it before or not. Now, as @Bob says, a Python programmer can't possibly code in PHP or Ext JS, at least in minds of HR.

That started to change, slowly at first, when Object Oriented Programming came into existence. Some of the old guys like myself from COBOL/RPG on mainframe days just couldn't adjust to that style. When Java use exploded that really came to a head. Now there are dozens of other languages like Java, knowing java doesn't necessarily get you any of those jobs.

Then Touch/mobile exploded on the scene, requiring a completely different paradigm on how you write the UI and programs, regardless of programming language. Now a Java programmer can't get a Java programming job because he never wrote Touch/smartphone apps before.

You can't keep up as an IT person anymore, it is not possible. I just laugh when I see all these self professed experts on security, mobile development and (my favorite) cloud. You're an expert? Really? And exactly how did you become an "expert"? Schools don't have experts teaching in very many places. You didn't read yourself into becoming an expert. The only true experts were just poor saps like ourselves who found themsleves thrust into the bleeding edge of one of these technologies and learned enough to complete a project. But most are hardly "experts", not like they have worked on same technology for 20-30 years like most of old timers used to do.

I have no idea what the fix is for this mindset. What is a new person entering IT supposed to focus on these days? Because chances are extremely high what they learn won't be used 5 years from now.
User Rank: Strategist
11/3/2014 | 2:16:37 PM
More survey details?
@Laurianne: Great post, excellent questions and points raised here. One question. Can you elaborate on this:

InformationWeek asked the IT community: Do you see an IT talent shortage today in one or more technology areas important to your business? Yes, said 73% of respondents at companies with fewer than 1,000 employees, and a whopping 88% of respondents at larger companies.

Was this a flash poll? A survey conducted by Information Week? How many respondents did you receive in each of these company-size categories? was this just in U.S. or worldwide?

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