The IT Talent Shortage Debate - InformationWeek

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11/3/2014
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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."

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

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williame8191
IW Pick
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williame8191,
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.
$28018109
50%
50%
$28018109,
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.
Laurianne
50%
50%
Laurianne,
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
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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.
PedroGonzales
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PedroGonzales,
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
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50%
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.
BobC513
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BobC513,
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. 
asksqn
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asksqn,
User Rank: Ninja
11/3/2014 | 1:38:32 PM
Seriously?
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.  
TerryB
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0%
TerryB,
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.
Susan_Nunziata
50%
50%
Susan_Nunziata,
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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