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.

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Weinman blames the Great Recession for starting IT down the path that led to the skills gap, while cautioning that an improved economy won't much ease the crunch for many workers.

"Companies are getting leaner and leaner. Starting in 2008, they downsized and streamlined, and they haven't replaced those positions," he observes. "If you're the hiring director of one of these very lean teams, you want only A+ workers. In the past, someone could get away with being a solid middle-of-the-road employee. Not anymore."

Charles Williams sees the situation from both sides. As manager of data systems at Georgia System Operations, an electric utility in Tucker, Ga., he wants and expects the people who report to him (currently there are seven) to keep their skills up to date. At the same time, he acknowledges that he is challenged to keep his own knowledge fresh when day-to-day duties take priority over opportunities to investigate up-and-coming technologies.

"In a way, it's natural for a manager to develop a technical skills gap. We're not able to sit down and play with things the way our employees might," he says. And that worries him. "I feel like I need to know a lot about the different job skills in my department," he adds. "I need to understand at a deep technical level what my employees are talking about."

Cutbacks in training and travel haven't helped Williams or his employees in their quest to stay relevant. "It's been a mixed bag because of the recession, but we're starting to see that turn around," he says. Upper management is beginning to loosen the restrictions on training, especially in the area of security.

The Looming IT Job Exodus

Even as IT employees and managers like Williams and his crew begin to polish skills that grew rusty during the recession, a much more dire scenario awaits them.

An increasing number of forward-thinking CIOs, employment experts and analysts are convinced that the current skills gap isn't just a temporary hiccup. In the long run, they assert, there will simply be fewer pure technology jobs in corporate America.

As companies of all sizes opt to tap service providers for their IT needs, corporate IT departments are shrinking. As the number of on-premises hardware and software systems decreases, fewer IT employees will be needed for their care and feeding.

At Freescale Semiconductor, that change has taken place. Software as a service is being used "in every business function, including IT," says CIO Tarek ElHadidi. "The infrastructure is outsourced." IT's role now is to "decide how we want it done," he adds. "We are dictating policies and rules to service providers."

To do that effectively, ElHadidi says he needs people with a deep understanding of Freescale's business processes, not technical protocols. For example, the value of IT professionals who know EDI is not so much in their technical knowledge and experience with EDI, but in their deep knowledge of how transactions move through the company and where the sticking points might be.

The same holds true for other disciplines, including emerging technologies such as cloud computing. "I'm not interested in [hiring] a cloud architect, but a pricing architect or a procurement architect," ElHadidi says.

At Carlsbad, Calif.-based United Orthopedic Group, which manufactures orthopedic braces and operates clinics, many of the deeply technical aspects of IT have been automated through virtualization and other new technologies.

"United runs on a fully virtualized infrastructure that is entirely managed from a single console," says CIO James Clent, who presides over a 21-person IT organization. That means there's less need for multiple support technicians.

When Clent needs a specialized technical assist, he turns to service providers. "I don't have staff for all of those things that don't require business knowledge," he says. "When I really need somebody [with enough IT expertise] to go under the hood, I'll contract for them."

That state of affairs is actually good news for IT pros like James Penman and Vince Montalbano, who both once had jobs in corporate IT and now work as contractors.

Penman is a senior consultant at Smart Consulting Firm in Naples, Fla., which caters to the financial services industry. He previously served as a CIO or CTO at several startups, and he also worked at Bank of America and Wachovia Securities.

In other words, he's seen it all. And now, he says, consulting is the place to be -- for a certain type of IT professional, at least.

"There's been a natural evolution to the use of service providers and external clouds, and the talent has moved with that," Penman says. "I like to build and design and create big systems" -- as he did when he worked at the big banks -- "but any given company does not put in a new portfolio management system every year. If you're a real hotshot technology guy, you don't want to be sitting around doing maintenance for four years waiting for the next big-nut project."

Montalbano is a senior infrastructure consultant at Microsoft consultancy Catapult Systems in Houston. After surviving three rounds of layoffs at his first corporate IT job, he resigned and took a series of contract jobs, and that experience convinced him that there were more stable, and more interesting, opportunities for him outside the organization.

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