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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Brian T. Horowitz, Contributing Reporter
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Brandon Taylor, Digital Editorial Program Manager
Jessica Davis, Senior Editor
Cynthia Harvey, Freelance Journalist, InformationWeek
Sara Peters, Editor-in-Chief, InformationWeek / Network Computing