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A Skills Shortage Simmers

As tech talent becomes scarce, IT managers pull out all the stops to keep workers engaged.

By Thomas Hoffman
December 31, 2007 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Though the U.S. economy has remained resilient throughout the past year, it has carried both pros and cons for CIOs like Joe Trentacosta.

On the plus side, IT organizations such as that of Hughesville, Md.-based Southern Maryland Electric Cooperative Inc. (SMECO), where Trentacosta manages a 25-person staff, have increased their annual budgets steadily and added to their project portfolios. But success brings its own challenges. For example, SMECO has added three financial and human resources modules to its Lawson Software suite over the past three years, and it's taking longer for Trentacosta to find Lawson software experts in the tightening IT labor market.

After conducting an exhaustive four-month search for someone with the experience needed to customize software interfaces and reports, "I've stepped back to reassess my options," says Trentacosta.

That's sound advice for IT leaders, who will continue to encounter an ever-tightening IT labor market in 2008.

"The [IT] talent war was fought, is over, and talent won," says Michael Nieset, managing partner of executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles International Inc.'s technology practice in Cleveland. Demand for IT workers with skills in specific areas, such as Web 2.0 technologies, is driving employers to compete with one another to show that they offer the best working environment, says Nieset. As a result, those pressures are leading employers to redefine flexible working conditions.

"The idea of [having to work in] headquarters is dissolving," says Nieset. Indeed, expectations among IT executives that IT workers will put in long hours at the office are "pretty much gone," says Robert Rosen, immediate past president of Share, an IBM user group, and CIO of the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases in Bethesda, Md.

Strong demand for IT labor should continue unabated through the U.S. presidential election, says Dan Reynolds, CEO of The Brokers Group LLC, a staffing firm in Princeton, N.J. After that, he says, other economic forces may dampen IT labor demand, including repercussions from the weak U.S. dollar and fallout from the frail housing market.

"I'm looking optimistic [about IT labor demand] for the next six to 12 months, but then pessimistic going into 2009, 2010," says Reynolds.

New Mantra: Recruit and Retain

But for the short term, at least, CIOs and other hiring managers will continue to struggle to recruit and retain IT workers. Plus, the demand for IT talent will place upward pressure on salaries across the board - not only for technologists with highly coveted technical skills such as J2EE and .Net expertise, but also for incumbent and entry-level IT workers, says Tom Casey, senior vice president and architect of the workforce transformation practice at IT consultancy BSG Concours in Kingwood, Texas.

SKILLS CRUNCH
The jobs that IT hiring managers say will be most difficult to fill in 2008, due to a lack of workers with that particular skill:
  1. Data management experts
  2. Software developers
  3. IT security workers
  4. Project managers
  5. Network managers
  6. Help desk staffers
  7. Storage administrators
SOURCE: Computerworld's first-half 2008 Vital Signs survey; September 2007, 103 respondents

To help retain and engage coveted IT workers, some IT leaders are beginning to try tactics such as allowing technologists to apply for sabbaticals or devote 10% to 20% of their workdays to developing a new skill or pursuing a technology or business discipline that interests them, says Rosen. "One person I know spent six months helping a university build a whole new IT curriculum," he says.

Cross-training is another way to keep people engaged, and not just in smaller IT organizations where resource constraints come into play. Sabre Holdings Corp. moves people across disciplines within projects and also has them work with different business units, says Sara Garrison, senior vice president of product and solutions development at the air-travel software company.

Cross-training "is really, really critical" for retention, says Garrison, who oversees a group of 1,200 to 1,400 developers at Southlake, Texas-based Sabre.

Since the talent pool for certain IT skills remains shallow, hiring managers should also consider casting a wider net. For instance, earlier this year, U.S. Bancorp in St. Paul, Minn., hired a client/server application support technician who had been out of the IT field for a few years and had previously worked as a manager at a tire store.

"We know that he's going to stay with something that's broken until it's fixed," says Joel Reiter, an application analyst at the bank. "His technical skills are excellent, and he knew what it was like to work with customers."  NEXT: 8 Juicy Predictions for '08  

Forecast 2008: IT Trends & Predictions for the New Year

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How'd we do in '07?  See last year's Forecast 2007.

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