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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.

cited missed revenue opportunities. That last point should grab IT leaders' attention; it's sure to grab the CEO's.

The only category where Cashman sees IT groups regularly willing to bring in people and train them for the job is help desk positions, which are among the lowest-paying, least-training-intensive positions.

Some employers must experience serious pain -- a missed revenue target, a delayed product launch, or a customer service blow-up -- before taking off the hiring perfection goggles. "Even then," Cashman says, "contractors often are brought in to fix the pain. It's wait, wait, hurry."

Holes in the screens
That scenario sounds familiar to IT veteran Stuart Lathrop, now a marketing enterprise solution architect for ESAB, a welding and automation equipment supply company.

Midcareer IT pros know Lathrop's recent job hunt story all too well. Job hunters struggle to make it through the first electronic filters of resumés, and when they do, the follow-up phone screenings prove frustrating. Interviewers show little willingness to bend on specific technical requirements or to consider transferable skills.

In 2012, Lathrop voluntarily left a full-time IT job (at a time of change within the company), did independent consulting for about a year, then started to look for a new full-time role in the fall of 2013.

"The only people I could have a conversation with were headhunters and recruiters," he says. "The on-site interview would be the first time I would talk to anyone who had IT experience."

He cast a wide net online and generated an application-response rate of 12% to 15%. But the callbacks were mostly for junior roles, for which he knew he was overqualified. "If I'm hiring, I don't want someone to undersell themselves to fill a role," Lathrop says. "They're going to be bored and won't be with you long."

Lathrop won his current role after a contact recommended him to come in and solve a thorny problem. He solved the problem and worked as a contractor for about eight months, at which point ESAB created a position for him. "That's a trend, bringing someone in as a contractor," he says. "Frankly I've used it myself."

What concerns Lathrop is the disconnect between HR and IT. He cites trust and language issues. For instance, if he's looking at the resumé of someone who says he has run an Oracle shop, using versions X through Y of a system, he would realize why that experience is a good match, even for a role keyed to a different software system. "I know what's involved in running an Oracle shop and having that kind of longevity," he says. "HR doesn't understand our side of the business well enough to make those interpretations."

A better approach, Lathrop says, would be for HR to sort candidates into an A pile and a B pile and let IT see all of them, before people are green- or red-lighted for in-person interviews. But that, of course, takes time. [ Editor's note: As this story was publishing, Lathrop learned his full-time job at ESAB is going away as part of a reorganization. In November, he will once again be a contractor with the company. ]

Adrianne McDonald had 17 years of IT experience and was working in a director-level infrastructure service delivery position for Time Warner Cable, running back-office disaster recovery efforts, when she began hunting for a new job in the fall of 2013 because of a reorganization.

"I was surprised when I came out at the difference in job hunting versus 2002," McDonald says. "About a third of the time, people contacted me for positions that were completely inappropriate." Although she was seeking a senior infrastructure position, she got calls for everything from entry-level business analyst to data mining roles. Whatever the recruiters were using to match job openings with candidates, it wasn't working. "I wanted to ask about the algorithm," she says.

McDonald was careful to apply only for positions in her wheelhouse, so she got a call back from an outside recruiter or HR pro about 70% of the time, she estimates. But to no avail. "When I got on the phone it was painful," she says.

The recruiters were always in a rush, McDonald says, but they weren't asking the questions that would have matched her or ruled her out in an informed way. "It's one of those pay now or pay later situations," she says.

McDonald didn't find the right position, and in December 2013 set up her own consulting firm, Transformation Leadership, where she does IT transformation and leadership development projects. Her decision to go solo -- the same route Lathrop took earlier in his career -- isn't unusual among midlevel IT pros. Some move back and forth several times between solo and company jobs. The most common reason to do contracting or consulting work is higher pay, our InformationWeek Salary Survey finds. Just 10% of managers and 28% of staffers who went that route say it's because they couldn't find full-time employment.

The only piece of good employment news I heard consistently -- and I heard it from almost every single recruiter and employer I spoke with -- is that it has become easier for IT pros to switch between industries, if you have deep experience in a desired skill. "Almost no one in our engineering team had travel experience," says Kayak's Zacharia. "We believe good technical skills easily transfer."

Especially when it comes to red-hot skills such as big data, companies have had to become more flexible on industry knowledge. "I tell them if they're looking for consumer packaged goods experience, they'll be looking a very long time," says Linda Burtch, founder and managing director of executive recruiting firm Burtch Works, which specializes in data analysis roles. Are companies now wise to that reality? "They tend not to be at the beginning of the process," she says, "but then they get there."

Companies innovate to draw talent
Some companies are getting creative about marketing themselves to and courting top tech talent.

Online retailer Gilt hired Lauri Apple as its technology evangelist about two years ago. Her job: to promote the cool projects and technologies that power Gilt.

"Really great talent will find a job," Apple says. "They're working already. You have to think of getting those folks as a long-term strategy, so you can get them when they're ready."

For example, Gilt offers day-long courses on hot skills such as Scala and Hadoop, taught by experts, and has tech gurus such as former Netflix cloud architect Adrian Cockcroft come in to speak. Gilt invites the local tech community to attend and builds in time for networking.

"What I'm set up to do is raise awareness of what's going on here, … and hopefully that will inspire people to apply," Apple says. Does she know anyone else in a similar role? No -- but she's getting more calls to discuss it. "I think you're going to see more of this competitive culture develop," she says.

Another best practice is to get involved with the informal networks that IT pros develop within their specialty areas. (You've experienced one if you've been to a cloud computing conference.) "We've seen companies be successful networking into those groups," says Yoh's Rivera, referring to events, user groups, and associations. "Get to know those groups … and then be respectful when you have openings." It's a give and take -- companies need to offer up their time and expertise to the community in order to connect with potential hires.

Meantime, don't just recycle old job descriptions, Cashman warns. IT and HR need to talk about the status of the project they're hiring for and the specific project challenges. And don't overload job descriptions with a dream list of skills. "If you miss the passive job seeker who thinks, 'They won't go for me because I don't have three of the 10 things required,' you do yourself a disservice," Cashman says.

Think of your job description as a place to sell your organization's culture. Gilt sells the fact that its tech people "get to work with a CTO who still codes," Apple says. Best Doctors touts its culture of tinkering.

When we asked in our survey about top obstacles to IT hiring, 50% of respondents at large companies cited low salaries. A significant 41% cited unrealistic expectations about skills and experience -- expectations that feed job descriptions.

Both IT pros and hiring managers must adapt to the fact that tech skills are changing faster than ever before. In the past, a networking or security pro could confidently craft a three-, five-, and maybe 10-year career plan. Those long paths aren't clear anymore.

Your next job hunt will be different, as McDonald found. Your technology niche may start hot and turn cool. Personal networking and project portfolios are as important as ever, even for entry-level roles. For more job hunt tips for new IT pros, see our related article: 9 IT Job Hunt Tips For Beginners.) Leaders like Bill Martin, CIO of Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., say that's just how IT careers work in the age of digital business.

"I've been the CIO at Royal Caribbean for seven years," says Martin, "and I like to tell people I'm in my third generation of IT, because it cycles about every three years, and the toolsets are completely different. How you approach problems is different. How the business looks at technology changes. If you want a career in IT, you need to be ready to change."

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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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User Rank: Ninja
6/17/2015 | 6:34:11 PM
H1B Visa Abuse is Also To Blame
It's downright comical how the writer of this piece completely left out the issue of H1B Visas, particularly with regard to the about-face Disney just did in the face of public backlash for pink slipping 250 tech workers and then making them train their inexperienced, cheaper foreign replacements.  No discussion of American IT is balanced without adding the decade plus long abuse of the H1B Visa charade fraud.
Robert P.W360
Robert P.W360,
User Rank: Apprentice
11/10/2014 | 10:15:19 PM
Science+software in HR
Soon after losing my job in 2008, in IT after 15 yrs at 2 Fortune500 firms, I applied to AT&T Mobility - just to get by for awhile. After their very long on-line resume stuff, a 100 question personality profile popped up. AT&T told me to look elsewhere based on the psych/personality test. That's where my story began.

HR has been infiltrated with software loaded with human behavioral sciences to assess candidates for work. First it was workforce behavioral psychology. NOW, neurologic tests are infiltrating HR, to assess thoughts for allowing predictions as to your potential and performance. What's next? In about 5 years, "genomics". This is a fluid evolution of science+tech+med. A Harvard author defines the slide as, segmentation>personalization>discrimination. It's taken from the sphere of marketing where business uses excessive data points to target consumers. Big data works in HR too, the science is in the assessment software. We are heading to a software selected workforce.  Psychology + Neurology + Genomics
Susan Fourtané
Susan Fourtané,
User Rank: Author
11/9/2014 | 9:06:12 PM
Re: There's no skill shortage, there's an ETHICS shortage

You have spoken some good truths in a very straightforward way. I appreciate it very much.

I have seen similar things to the ones you point out. That unwillingness to pay for quality talent is found all over the place. It's been like a virus that has spread all over. 

Some corporations go as far as offering you peanuts when they perfectly know the value of the work and they also know they are offering half, or even less than what the job was worth years ago. Sometimes I don't know how they have the courage to do it and ask if this is acceptable when they know it is not. 

Joe Stanganelli
Joe Stanganelli,
User Rank: Author
11/9/2014 | 7:40:26 AM
Re: Purple Squirrel
Indeed, I was granted a job interview a couple of years ago where I had less than half the "requisite" experience posted.

I was not ultimately hired, but I was the finalist who just barely got beaten out.  Many of the people who didn't get hired had well over 20-25 years of experience.
Michael Endler
Michael Endler,
User Rank: Author
11/8/2014 | 5:02:50 AM
Re: Poor IT Management, Lazy HR
"In the Bay Area many non-tech jobs are paying around six figures.  Police officer in San Fran, starts at 90k + Pension + (best benefits in the world) + Job Security, education requirement (only a 2-year degree)."

I agree with some of your points, but I think the quoted passage is a bit misleading. With your example, you're talking about government jobs, though, which aren't representative of the "non-tech" jobs in the Bay Area. The statistics are pretty clear that tech workers (and engineers in particular) make way more money relative to people outside tech. I have no problem with tech workers making a lot-- in fact, in some cases, I think many of them should be even better compensated. But I don't think you can point to "non-tech" workers, who generally earn much less, if you're trying to demonstrate how tech employees are getting hosed. 

The median annual salary, including all tech workers, in SF is something like $63k, according to at least one source I've seen. Meanwhile, I've seen several surveys that peg average engineering salaries in the region at 50-100% more than this median. If we go back to that median figure and consider that many, many tech jobs in SF are in the upper 50%, and that many government workers are also in the upper 50%, we'll have to conclude that many, many public sector non-tech workers are in the bottom 50%. Suppose you make $50k in SF. Sounds okay, right, even if it's below the median? It might be a workable amount, if you don't have kids-- but in a city in which renting a new apartment will set you back around $25k annually, that $50k salary (which comes in closer to $35k after taxes) doesn't go very far. If you also consider that many young non-tech workers have huge student loans (just like most young tech workers do), that $50k starts to look really meager. Certainly, it becomes meager enough that you can't use such an employee to demonstrate how a highly-paid engineer is getting screwed. I realize that you said you were talking about people earning six figures-- but my point is, these people are far rarer among non-tech workers than you seem to indicate.

The engineering averages (and other measures of local tech salaries) are often inflated by the presence of a few extreme outliers (e.g. I saw one that included people like Mark Zuckerberg in the "tech employees" category, which has to have had a significant effect on the overall average). But nevertheless, even without job security, tech works in the bay area are better enabled than many "non-tech" workers to accrue wealth, and to have some sort of nest egg if they lose their jobs. I don't mean to belittle that tech workers sometimes get a raw deal-- they do. As some of my other posts demonstrate, I think many complaints about hiring practices and wages in the tech industry are valid. But I don't think the Bay Area's non-tech workers are a good example for the way tech workers are getting screwed, at least not if you paint with a broad brush.
Thaddeus Howze
Thaddeus Howze,
User Rank: Apprentice
11/7/2014 | 7:05:28 PM
There's no skill shortage, there's an ETHICS shortag
Nonsense. There is no skill shortage. There is an UNWILLINGNESS to pay for quality talent. Corporations have taken this stance on pay which says: 

We will not pay you what the job is worth. 
We have done everything we can to make society as unequal as possible. 
We have jury-rigged society so you don't make enough money to live on, have as much debt as you can carry and if you are a young person, engineered society so you CANNOT get a job without as expensive a degree as we can possibly saddle you with. 

This means if you are an older person who was pushed out of the workforce during the Great Purge of 2008, you are probably still looking for work. You have the skills but you are not willing to do the same job you used to do for half the money you used to be paid and working 20% more hours, to boot. 

If you are a college student, you are more likely to get a job, because you don't know what the value of that job is worth. If ten years ago it paid $60,000 and now pays $35,000, what do you know? You didn't have a job ten years ago. This looks acceptable to you. 

Corporations float the idea that the workforce should understand running a business costs money and we all have to tighten our belts. Statistically that simply isn't true. While the rank and file worker has not seen a pay increase of any significant value for over 30 years, the executive class and the corporate investors are making money hand over fist and their income has increased a thousand fold in that same 30 year window. 

Anyone who says they can't find workers is being dishonest. What they can't find are people who can afford to live on these pitiful excuses for wages for doing the work the corporation cannot live without, while executives who sit in the lap of luxury, who want for nothing, who laughingly get into their seventeen Mercedes in a decade and go to their mansion in the hills, keep their employees working for slave wages, no medical benefits and all working two to four part-time jobs to pay for the next generation of wages slaves to work even harder, increasing national productivity, for even less money. 

Yes, I have said what few are willing to say. We are being led astray, told we are lacking something that once upon a time, if a corporation needed trained people, they did what anyone who needed a person with a particular skill set did. 

They trained them.
User Rank: Apprentice
11/5/2014 | 9:47:02 AM
Why no reference to the Bureau of Labor Statistics?
If one goes to and looks up the estimated job growth for IT and related occupations one does not get the idea there is much of a shortage.

These jobs are all under "Computer and Information Technology"

For example, one occupation that would seem to be covered by this article is "Computer Programmers".

The BLS has computer programmers in the USA employing 28,400 more people in 2022 than in 2012 or adding 2,840 incremental jobs per year.

Other jobs sch as "Computer network architects" are expected to grow by about 2,090 incremental jobs per year.

"Software developers" are expected to grow by about 22,260 per year.

"Information Security Analysts" by about 2,740 jobs per year.

"Database Administrators" by about 1,790 jobs per year.

The rough total of the incremental job gains seems to approximate the 85,000 H1B visas granted this year, indicating few incremental jobs available for USA workers.

Is the completely out of touch?

Am I reading the data incorrectly or overlooking some job classification with many more jobs expected?






User Rank: Strategist
11/4/2014 | 6:02:43 PM
Re: More survey details?
@Laurianne: Thank you! Wealth of info in that link, appreciate your sharing it and look forward to more on this topic.
User Rank: Apprentice
11/4/2014 | 1:08:30 PM
IT Staffing
Identifying and attracting candidates is only half the battle. It is a critical component of business success to have a quality screening process because a right hire can increase productivity and success while a bad hire can lead to losses in time, money and employee morale. Develop a quality screening process and make sure you paint an accurate picture of a position.

Than Nguyen

The InSource Group

IT Staffing Company

User Rank: Author
11/4/2014 | 12:35:08 PM
Re: Purple Squirrel
@B52Junebug, you're right, women can face backlash about ambition in some companies and interview situations. Check out this interesting advice from negotiation expert Joan C. Williams, on how women can employ "gender judo" strategies:
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