IT Skills: Jumping the Chasm

The current tech talent gap is just the first sign of a coming revolution in the IT jobs market. Here's how to secure your footing now and brace for what's ahead.

Call it the tech industry's version of a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma: Businesses have job openings, but IT professionals are struggling to land jobs or move to better ones.

What phenomenon could knock the hallowed laws of supply and demand off-kilter? Two words: "skills gap."

It seems as though tales of this alleged IT skills gap have become especially common during the past six months. As the story goes, employers are desperate to find people with expertise in hot areas like mobile app development, cloud computing and business analytics, while employees, exhausted from staff reductions and increased workloads, wonder what more they must to do to keep current.

It's a tragic tale -- but not completely accurate, according to some tech-employment experts. The situation is more nuanced than what can be captured in a headline, and both workers and employers share responsibility for the gap, they say.

Most portentous, though, is that the gap, whatever its true nature, is rapidly becoming a yawning chasm -- one that IT employees will have to cross sooner rather than later. Many hiring experts, IT managers and CIOs believe that the tech employment landscape will be radically different five years from now as more and more companies outsource IT operations to service providers, perhaps offshore, or move traditional IT jobs to other business units.

In the face of such rapid change, it's becoming clear that the one skill every member of the IT workforce needs is career management.

"Everybody is a free agent, navigating the corporate chaos," says Todd Weinman, president of The Weinman Group, an executive search firm headquartered in Oakland, Calif., that specializes in audit and corporate governance. In the IT job market, he says, "the people who are faring a little bit better are constantly cultivating their careers on a variety of fronts."

Tech employees log long hours, meaning they get a lot of hands-on experience, but they're not getting the training and other types of enrichment they need to develop their careers. "In addition to your 50-plus hours a week, you need in-depth coursework to refresh your skills, plus studying to sit for certifications," says Weinman. At many companies, employees used to be able to take time for those types of pursuits during the workday, but not anymore.

"Those who want to stay relevant have to work very hard" -- at work and during off-hours, says Weinman, who is a member of the ISACA Leadership Development Committee. ISACA is an IT professional association that, among other things, provides security certifications.

The Current Gap

Weinman is one of several employment experts who say they see a clear gap between the talent that employers are seeking and the talent that's available. "It's very difficult to find people who have deep skills in security on mobile devices, infrastructure, network security, advanced persistent threats or mainframe skills," he says. "People who have those skills are becoming a smaller percentage of the overall population."

Suzanne Fairlie is also hearing how difficult it is to find people with certain skills -- but she says the gap involves a different set of skills. Fairlie, president of ProSearch, a nationwide executive search company with a strong focus on CIO placement, took a back-of-the-envelope survey of 12 CIOs with whom she has worked recently.

"To a person, everybody validated that there is a gap," she says. But it's not necessarily a gap in deep technical skills; it primarily involves the strategic skills that managers are increasingly demanding of everyone in their departments.

The list includes "business analysis skills, relationship skills, understanding the value of IT to the organization, navigating internal politics," says Fairlie. "Those are hard to come by, and yet, they're so essential."

Jack Cullen, president of Modis, a global provider of IT staffing services, concurs. "In today's marketplace, if you have good references and a strong technical skill set and can communicate how you'll provide ROI, four jobs will be waiting for you," he says.

What amazes, and to some degree frustrates, Cullen are those instances when clients choose not to hire a job applicant because they can't check every box on their wish lists. "We're seeing this huge pent-up demand, and the pool of labor isn't growing. And yet, what's perplexing is just how specific hiring managers still are," he says. "They want this skill, that particular work on the network side, certifications, this many years of experience. Companies are not willing to take a risk. Nobody's jumping out the window to hire the average employee."

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