Tech workers stress over skills gap

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Hiring managers are looking for perfection. After years of training cuts, IT workers are worried.

Dean Haddock has seen how highly skilled IT workers can be sidelined: He has witnessed more than one colleague develop deep skills in an IT specialty, only to be displaced -- in a flash -- when a new technology comes along.

In light of that cold reality, Haddock knows he has to keep current with not just basic IT skills -- the fundamentals related to networking, databases and systems integration -- but with a never-ending list of up-and-coming technologies like cloud computing and social networking. On top of that, Haddock says he must understand the strategy that drives his industry and his company.

"There's a whole community of CIOs and leaders in tech positions coming together to talk and collaborate on how to get out of this corner we painted ourselves into. We don't want to be just the people who others call when the printers don't work," says Haddock, who is manager of IT at StoryCorps, a Brooklyn-based nonprofit that records and archives conversations between everyday Americans telling stories about their lives.

Haddock's comments capture the sentiment of many of his fellow IT professionals. Despite the improving economy, 93% of the 4,337 respondents to Computerworld's Salary Survey 2012 said they have concerns about their careers.

Some 26% of those respondents said that they're concerned specifically about keeping their skills up to date and about being valuable to their employers, while 15% listed finding an appropriate new position for their skill set as their primary concern. Clearly, skills are front and center in IT workers' minds as the economic recovery gains steam.

Caught in a bind

Observers say tech workers are reeling from a particularly potent one-two punch brought on by the sustained economic crisis: Organizations of all stripes have reported deep cuts to their training budgets in recent years, and they have held off on initiatives that would have given workers a way to learn new technologies.

At the same time, technological evolution continued at its breakneck pace. Our 2012 Salary Survey found that the skills related to emerging technologies, such as mobile, wireless and communications systems, cloud computing and Web security, enjoyed the biggest year-over-year increases in demand among IT managers who plan to hire in the next 12 months.

On top of that, hiring managers say they want people with the basic tech skills that have always been required, as well as business acumen, communication skills and customer service abilities.

As a regional systems engineering manager at Avaya, a Lisle, Ill.-based provider of collaboration and communication products, Joseph Steiner manages a group of presales system engineers, so he understands the current dynamic from both a manager's perspective and a tech worker's point of view.

"It's not just keeping up with the pace of change. [IT workers] have to be 'broader' to remain relevant," he says. "There's more breadth required of IT personnel than ever before."

All this helps explain why so many IT professionals are worried about keeping their skills up to date. "Given the rapid speed at which innovation is occurring, you can't talk to any person in technology and not pick up some sort of drive or passion to take on or learn new technology," Haddock says.

At the same time, "there is a caution in the field to be very thoughtful about what technologies we're pouring our energies into. It's possible to pigeonhole yourself to one technology that could become obsolete in the future," Haddock warns.

Brian Gegan says people need to take the initiative to keep up, especially if they've become comfortable in a particular role. "It's a real problem, because the skill sets that work today aren't necessarily going to be applicable tomorrow," says Gegan, who is senior vice president for technology at Eyefinity, a Rancho Cordova, Calif.-based provider of online business tools for eye care professionals.

Some IT workers understand that and seek out new initiatives and training opportunities, he says. But others need coaching or mentoring to ease them out of their comfort zones.

Gegan says Eyefinity continued to offer company-sponsored training throughout the recession, and he requires staffers to have professional development plans. Elsewhere, the trend of organizations cutting training budgets during the recession seems to be finally slowing. Last year, 30% of Salary Survey respondents reported cuts to training, while only 21% did this year.

DIY skills development

Haddock says he and his colleagues keep skills anxiety at bay by engaging in the long-standing IT tradition of learning by experimenting with technologies. "We all do our own projects outside of work," he says. "It's not a 9-to-5 thing for us. It's a lifestyle."

Steiner says he sees a similar approach among his colleagues, who try out new tech toys in Avaya's demo lab. "They'll go play with it until they break it and then fix it. There's still a lot of that experiential learning," he says.

Steiner and other execs say staffers also seek out and pay for training on their own, but such efforts no longer automatically equate to extra pay at many organizations.

Jack Cullen, president of tech staffing firm Modis, says companies, particularly those aiming to hire people with expertise in cloud, security and mobile technologies, want workers with documented proof that they know the technologies and have successfully worked with them. "Their fear is that it might take too long to get someone internally trained and up to speed," he says.

That might sound discouraging, but Cullen predicts that IT shops will be more open to training people as they get deeper into projects. As the scope of an initiative expands, he says, "you'll see them train workers internally to pick up the rest of the work."

And then IT workers may finally get the hands-on experience and skills refresh that went missing during the recession.

Next: Techies work harder as benefits go bust

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