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.

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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 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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Laurianne
IW Pick
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Laurianne,
User Rank: Author
11/4/2014 | 12:28:01 PM
Re: The age of Digital Screening
Here is a related article with tips on navigating the screening software -- another unpleasant IT job hunt reality that won't change soon: http://www.informationweek.com/software/information-management/it-jobs-how-to-master-applicant-tracking-systems/d/d-id/1316232
@B52Junebug
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@B52Junebug,
User Rank: Strategist
11/4/2014 | 12:22:58 PM
Re: Purple Squirrel
@Laurianne Even with us Women rolling the dice at 75% apptitude for the position doesnt mean we will get through the screening process.

Women generally have a hard time selling themselves when it comes to putting in for new jobs. We arent usually cut throat enough to take that leap. When we do, it can be seen as character flaw.
@B52Junebug
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@B52Junebug,
User Rank: Strategist
11/4/2014 | 12:16:16 PM
The age of Digital Screening
Just recently I moved for a job, the new company offered a great benefit of allowing your significant other to find a new job.

However, in the conversations that he has had with the Talent firm, they are all about the fact that your resume doesnt really matter. Social networking must be used. Linkedin, Facebook etc.

And if your resume doesnt have the new buzz words in the appropriate places within the resume the new screening software will rank you right of an opportunity.

I get that there are a ton of folks out there today looking for work in IT and some fluff their resume, but with tools like the automated screeners, dont you have to?

My significant other is a mid career Lan Admin or in new buzz words, Wintel. Because he has been out of the IT field for a year, he is willing to take an entry level position to get his feet wet. With everything I have seen and heard, he might as well retire.

Its very hard to be defeatist in this whole process, but really, if the HR folks dont understand what they are actually hiring for, how can they even bring in the right candidate?

My last job we were looking for a mobility engineer with two experiences, one App development and some VDI or at least the knowledge of VDI and could be taught. 65 resumes later, the manager still didnt have any one close to being qualified for either requirement all due to the screening process.

Its sad really.

 
shawn.anderson
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shawn.anderson,
User Rank: Apprentice
11/4/2014 | 11:55:31 AM
Re: We finally learned how to hire awesome developers
@Laurianne, we use both recruiter and our own methods. We look first to our customer base and any employee referrals, then we do job postings, and then we bring in the recruiter. We've had successful finds from all three sources. And yes, our candidates all mention how intrigued they are with our long interview. Too bad I can't post URL to a Business of Software (BOS) 2013 talk from Mikey Trafton where we got these awesome ideas. Message me @ShawnAnderson and I'll shoot the link to you. 
Laurianne
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Laurianne,
User Rank: Author
11/4/2014 | 11:42:33 AM
Re: Purple Squirrel
That is true Joe, that women and men react to job descriptions differently. Female CIOs tell me they teach their rising stars to apply when they have say 75% of what the descrip asks for -- because the men will roll the dice at this point, and if women don't, they fall behind.
Laurianne
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Laurianne,
User Rank: Author
11/4/2014 | 11:38:39 AM
Re: Talent's out there for companies that are looking
Thanks, @fullstackdavid. You raise a point I heard from many of the recruiters and HR pros: More and more, the companies who win at the talent game do it through the strength of their IT pros' own networks. Companies really love to hire people who are going to bring a rock star personal network to the party. If you have this, flaunt it. And as you point out, if you're a student or a new IT pro, work your way into those personal networks via hackathons and events. Glad your students are getting good results.
Laurianne
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Laurianne,
User Rank: Author
11/4/2014 | 11:30:52 AM
Re: The disconnect is between IT leadership and project leadershp
Good point re Agile and the continuous measurement of velocity. Agile doesn't have to mean constant personnel turnover, but it may turn into that if IT leadership and project managers get out of sync.
Laurianne
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Laurianne,
User Rank: Author
11/4/2014 | 11:25:10 AM
Re: Poor IT Management, Lazy HR
You heard the recruiter in this story tell me that the industry is still fighting the worry among college students that they will train for IT careers only to see jobs move to India. No wonder they worry about it; many of them saw their parents live through it. The reality is H-1B is not going away, like it or not.
Laurianne
50%
50%
Laurianne,
User Rank: Author
11/4/2014 | 11:18:27 AM
Re: on the IT Talent shortage, I vote for "botched Hiring Process"
To your point , HR and IT may be different tribes, but they must partner, or the situation will get worse.
Laurianne
50%
50%
Laurianne,
User Rank: Author
11/4/2014 | 11:16:40 AM
Re: We finally learned how to hire awesome developers
@Shawn, thanks for the feedback and sharing your lessons learned. So are you using an outside recruiter to weed through through the initial submissions and decide who gets to take the coding test, or doing that yourself? Your interview process sounds quite practical. I bet the candidates like how the in-person day goes, as well.
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