Stop searching for that elusive 'purple squirrel'

Despite the talent shortage, managers still want perfection

The right tech talent is critical to a company's efficiency, innovation and financial success, and demand for qualified talent has never been greater. As the pressure mounts, the search for the perfect candidate is getting increasingly competitive.

IT hiring managers around the country are looking for candidates with skills that often aren't available, or that sometimes don't even exist.

At Modis, we've come to call this search for perfection the quest for the "purple squirrel." IT hiring managers can't find the purple squirrel -- the ideal job candidate -- because the skills IT professionals need are continually evolving.

Expertise that once was considered "nice to have" is now a "must-have," and hiring managers refuse to compromise. Companies seeking someone with seven years of experience with Java and Ruby on Rails won't consider a candidate who has nine years of experience with Java and is eager to learn Ruby on Rails. Instead, they keep looking for that elusive purple squirrel.

What's more, they're not just looking for technical skills. We often hear requests for IT candidates who are "strong communicators." Companies want IT people who are solution-oriented and can assess and solve problems with the bottom line in mind. Highly skilled programmers can be turned down if a hiring manager doesn't think they'll be able to interact with business people.

Recent surveys suggest that IT professionals are aware of this growing skills gap. In Computerworld's Salary Survey 2012, 93% of the IT professionals surveyed said that they have career concerns, the biggest of which include keeping their skills up to date (cited by 26% of the respondents), followed by finding an appropriate new position for their skill set (15%).

Similarly, in a recent Modis survey of IT professionals, 61% of the respondents said training in new technical skills was a key contributor to their job satisfaction. It's clear that IT professionals understand new industry demands and are eager to learn the skills that will advance their careers.

The perfect candidate probably isn't available or doesn't exist, but you can ensure that you find the best available talent if you remember these tips:

Be open-minded. Don't be afraid to hire someone who doesn't possess all the skills you consider to be must-haves. Look for someone who shows promise and could thrive with the right training.

Train to retain. Holding on to star employees is just as important as attracting new talent -- even if that means retaining people whose skills aren't fully developed. As the economy continues to improve, many employees might consider switching jobs if they're presented with the right opportunity (especially if it gives them a chance to learn new skills). Entice them to stay by offering training in areas that are new to them. Employees tend to be loyal to companies that invest in them.

Consider talent from different industries. Sometimes the right candidate won't come from an obvious IT sector. For example, we've seen healthcare CIOs look to the financial services world to find people to work on new electronic health records systems, because financial IT professionals have the right mix of skills for the job.

Given the changing nature of IT, the skills that ideal job candidates need will always be evolving. What shouldn't change is a flexible approach to finding the right talent.

Next: How we conducted the survey

Jack Cullen, president of Modis, a global provider of IT staffing services, has been in the IT resource management business for more than 25 years. Learn more about Modis at

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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