Global CIO: Will Your Talent Pool Fix You Or Ruin You When Growth Returns?

Plan now for staffing needs when the economy ramps up. Look to retraining, mentoring, and career development to keep valuable staff engaged and skill sets polished.
With national unemployment hitting 8.1% and lots of companies stuck with frozen or slashed IT budgets, it's a pretty long stretch to imagine a shortage of IT people anytime soon.

But that's something IT leaders should be thinking about.

Once the dust clears from all the chopping that's been going on, and more companies refocus from heads-down cost cutting to new business growth plans -- including pockets of opportunities that emerge as weaker competitors fall -- CIOs will be scrutinizing what types of talent they'll need to drive the IT projects that will fuel those new-business initiatives.

Certainly some companies already are thinking ahead. Consider this: Though it's convenient to believe that most companies -- like your competitors -- are focusing primarily on cost cutting these days, that's not the case. For instance, as my colleague Bob Evans pointed out recently, a new study sponsored by IBM and Aldata Solutions found that 26% of retailers expect IT spending to go up as a percentage of revenue, while another 51% expect it to remain flat. So already, retailers -- one of the sectors hit hardest by the recession -- are expecting more IT budget-boosting and less budget-bashing.

Meanwhile, in other sectors, such as health care, new IT projects also are moving up the priority list. It's a pretty safe assumption that over the next couple of years, tens of thousands of U.S. hospitals and doctors will begin (or continue) to deploy new electronic-health record systems and other IT-driven clinical applications, motivated by their eligibility in 2011 for up to $17 billion in federal funding for using these technologies in "meaningful" ways.

Wal-Mart already has jumped on that opportunity by partnering with Dell Computer and software vendor e-ClinicalWorks to sell bundled e-health systems to small doctors' offices via the Sam's Club discount warehouse outlets. eClinicalWorks expects to grow its workforce by almost 70% in the next two years, as it expects to add its payroll by another 500 people with clinical-IT talent to train and support these efforts by doctors. Meanwhile, hospitals also will need to beef up talent to deploy these projects.

Circumvent Talent Shortages
And while it might still be a bit early to know exactly which new technologies your post-recession tech projects will require, some of the probable candidates include cloud computing, green IT, and even new Web-based variants of BI, CRM, and ERP. The problem is that it's also highly probable that your competitors as well as lots of companies outside your industry will be evaluating that same list of vital new solutions, thereby creating the concerns over talent shortages for people with expertise in those emerging areas.

Yes, there have been big tech employers including IBM, Intel, and Microsoft that have laid off thousands of workers in recent months. But overall, when compared with other occupations, IT and other computer-related jobs haven't been hit nearly as hard. And yes, there's also been some recent good news about the college-level pipeline for young tech talent: for the first time since the dot-com boom, enrollment in undergrads majoring in computer science at U.S. universities this year has increased, with a new study by the Computing Research Association pegging that increase at 6.2%. But those young people are still in college, and it will take a few years for them to enter the employment market, not to mention gain real-world experience working with the technologies your business will likely want to deploy sooner rather than later.

So, the question is this: Once you get the go-ahead to pursue new business-technology initiatives, do you have the bench strength to move aggressively? This is a critical issue because I would guess your IT head count has been falling a bit lately, whether through actual cuts or attrition, with very little if any new hiring going on. At the same time, much of the tech hiring that recruiters say is still occurring is focused around skill sets that have traditionally been in short supply: enterprise architecture, security, database administration, and even some SAP talent.

"There's been a lot of vendor consolidation -- we've got about a dozen customers short in what they need for SAP skills," says Michael Kirven, co-founder of Bluewolf, an IT consulting and staffing firm on the East Coast. This observation about SAP skills continuing to be sought-after despite the economy also is repeated in a new report about the SAP ecosystem from market research and consulting firm Pierre Audoin Consultants. The PAC study said this:

"The new architecture behind SAP has also changed the requirements that need to be fulfilled by individual consultants. While in mature SAP markets, demand for ever-higher qualifications and expert know-how is high, also in times of recession, more broadly qualified SAP consultants are needed in less mature markets."

If you take an inventory of the skills your IT team has, and then spend some time thinking about the skills you're likely lacking for projects coming post-recession, you've probably begun to consider how you can prepare some of those folks to make the transition into new projects. What skills do they need to learn or brush up on? If training money is tight (how about nonexistent?), what kinds of low-cost career development can you offer your most promising players?

And then there's the old puzzle of mentoring: everyone agrees it's a good idea, but few companies have figured out how to do it meaningfully and effectively. But they'd better start figuring it out because it's extremely important to the Gen Y workforce. Meagan Johnson, a partner at consulting firm Johnson Training Group, says younger workers today are "hungry for mentoring relationships."

Global CIO
Global CIOs: A Site Just For You
Visit InformationWeek's Global CIO -- our new online community and information resource for CIOs operating in the global economy.
Johnson, who studies multigenerational work issues, says "the economy will eventually change, and you still need to be an appealing place to work or people will walk out the door." Providing younger workers mentoring -- and even just making the effort to offer feedback to them on a regular basis -- "is important to this generation" and key for retaining them, she says.

Gary Henning, a senior regional VP at IT staffing firm Robert Half Technology, says the best advice he has for employers right now is this: "Hold on to your most talented people -- it's not easy to find good people and it will be harder to hold them when others want them, too." When those people leave, "they take a lot of knowledge out the door, and that takes years to replace," he says.

As has long been the case, it's painstaking work to retain, train, and artfully deploy your best people. But considering the alternatives that this global economic downturn has presented -- mass layoffs -- that's suddenly not such a bad problem to have.

Editor's Choice
James M. Connolly, Contributing Editor and Writer
Carrie Pallardy, Contributing Reporter
Shane Snider, Senior Writer, InformationWeek
Sara Peters, Editor-in-Chief, InformationWeek / Network Computing
Brandon Taylor, Digital Editorial Program Manager
Jessica Davis, Senior Editor
John Edwards, Technology Journalist & Author