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.

REUTERS/Robert Galbraith

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.

The Future of IT...

  • Smaller IT departments.
  • Tech positions embedded within business units.
  • Fewer purely technical jobs.
  • Broader job descriptions.
  • Many outsourced functions.
  • Demand for people who know multiple technologies.
  • Strategic, analytic and communication skills at a premium.

...And How to Thrive

  • Make career management your No. 1 skill.
  • Pursue training and certifications -- on your own time and on your own dime, if necessary.
  • Aim to solve business problems, not tech problems.
  • Develop soft skills like communication.
  • Either commit to an industry and build business skills...
  • ...or develop deep IT skills and work for an outsourcer or service provider.
  • Consider consulting.

"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."

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.

"Unless you're the guy with the in-house tribal knowledge of the company, everything else is going to wind up with a consultant or contractor," says Montalbano. He's currently working on a long-term Windows 7 deployment at a "pretty good-sized" international company. "They don't have the skills to do this in-house," he says.

Specialist or Generalist?

Like many big companies, consumer products giant Kimberly-Clark is combining what were individual IT specializations, such as firewall or intrusion-detection skills, into broader job titles.

The company once had more than 300 discrete job specifications for IT roles. But now, "I'm down to about 45," says David Richter, vice president of global infrastructure and operations.

As part of a broader plan to redeploy 252 in-house IT professionals, Kimberly-Clark employees are rotating through various jobs to learn the skills they need to perform in new roles. "Our roles are more generic than previously," he says.

Richter's goal is simple: "I need a broader bench. I need people who have two or three areas of expertise," he says.

Cook Children's Health Care System in Fort Worth, Texas, is similarly de-emphasizing individual technology specializations and "melding roles," says CIO Theresa Meadows.

To cross-train workers for the broader new roles, she instituted a "pod system" where three or four people with different skills work in groups so they can learn from one another. "That's how we're beginning to address [the skills gap]," says Meadows.

Specifically, she needs more business process knowledge within her IT staff, which currently numbers around 170. "Tools are important, but it's equally important to know the business and how the tool you're implementing impacts that process. It's almost more critical to get that business process knowledge, because we can teach the tools," Meadows observes.

Dru Urbaniak works at a company far smaller than Kimberly-Clark or Cook Children's -- in fact, the systems network administrator is one of just two true IT specialists at Midwest Legal & eData Services, a Milwaukee firm specializing in document imaging, data forensics and e-discovery. He embraces the idea that an IT professional needs a broad skill set and multiple areas of expertise.

Despite all he hears about outsourcing, Urbaniak says IT still has a role to play inside organizations, even ones as small as his. "In the future, more things are going to get outsourced, but it's not going to be all or nothing," he predicts. "I could see a 75/25 split between outsourced and in-house."

In that scenario, someone will still need to be on-site with hands-on knowledge of local software, networks and hardware. "You're going to need more of a multifaceted person, not so much in-depth on any one product, but knowledgeable enough to help or know where to get help," he says.

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