8 Ways to Bridge the IT Skills Gap

By Ericka Chickowski  |  Posted 2008-04-29

One of the biggest problems CIOs face today is that of workforce development. Though the existence of an all-encompassing IT labor shortage is debatable, many in IT leadership struggle with specific gaps in skills within IT at large.

“We consistently hear that companies and hiring managers have a really hard time finding quality people with the right skills,” says Frank Han, vice president at Robert Half Technology. “There might be a good volume of available candidates, the problem is finding those of high enough quality to do the job.”

Fortunately, there are plenty of ways IT managers can tackle the existing gap in skills and develop a staff that can provide their business with a competitive edge. The following tips provided by experts in recruiting, workforce research and education offer a good start down that path.

1. Invest in training.
One of the most obvious—and the most important—ways an individual organization can ensure its employees have all the skills they need is to provide them with adequate training. The training piece is very big, companies would be wise to  invest back into their people. Because it is often difficult to find someone with a cascade of very specialized IT qualifications, it makes sense for enterprises to hire junior-level staffers and train them.

“That is something I've seen,” Han says. “You can save a little on the front end and invest the savings in the long run. You see that especially with companies that are growing. They may need someone with A, B, C, and D but can only find a smart, young candidate with A and B, so they decide to hire them on the assumption that they'll get them up to speed on C and D.”

The trouble is that even if investing in training may seem like a no-brainer to some, many organizations are skittish about it because of the cost and the worry that employees will jump ship once they've skilled up, says Steven Ostrowski, director of corporate communications for the Computer Technology Industry Association (CompTIA). But he believes that they are only hurting themselves with this attitude, for two big reasons.

First of all, an employee who isn't worth stealing by a competitor probably isn't worth much to you either. And secondly, because IT workers tend to be the type of people who take pride in learning and growing, training is considered by most to be an indispensable component of compensation. Employers who fail to train staff due to fear that they'll leave are destined to lose their best employees, the ones who crave job development.

“It is a lot more economical in the long run to spend some money up front on some training or send someone to a boot camp to learn something new or to take a course at a community college than it will be to have turnover among your staff every six months,” Ostrowski says.

2. Monitor the market.
As critical as training is, though, it is just as important to remember that it needs to be done strategically. Gartner recommends that IT managers keep an analytical eye on the job market to stay ahead of the trends in skills gaps.

“IT management teams should establish careful and frequent market monitoring to identify where they are at risk and to speed the development of coping strategies,” Gartner's analysts wrote in a paper entitled The Quest for Talent: You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet. “Interviews conducted with IT sourcing managers across the Gartner client base hint at what's to come: Many have seen price hikes of
10% to 15% in certain skills during the past year; others report that IT service providers are experiencing employee turnover of 20% or more and struggling to meet service-level agreements.”

The earlier an organization can spot a lack of supply in skills that they expect to need, the sooner it can implement training or at least think of alternative ways to deliver the necessary work without maintaining an employee on staff with the requisite knowledge.

3. Learn to identify future leaders.
In the same paper, Gartner advised enterprises to focus heavily on developing the skills of the talented individuals who they most expect to fill leadership positions in the long run. These positions tend to be the hardest to fill because they usually require a combination of technical competencies and business understanding that can be difficult to find in the marketplace. As such, it is usually easiest to train someone to spec.

In order to do this, it is essential to identify these people as early as possible by looking for highly-trainable people, the kind of smart employees with the cognitive abilities to pick up anything given the right training.

“Look especially for people who meet the versatilist model — rich in contextual grasp, high in the capacity to generate future business value,” Gartner analysts wrote explaining that this versatilist model puts more emphasis on initiative, strategic disciplines (such as financial analysis) and role experience (such as project management) than on technical skills and certifications.

4. Take advantage of the wisdom of age...
Smart organizations know how to look for high-potential candidates that might not have all of the right skills or certifications. One of the most effective ways to do this is to plumb the depths of candidate groups that many enterprises fail to explore.

Older candidates may not have the freshest technical skillset, but they very often have the business acumen and understanding of the business for which CIOs are so clamoring these days.

“Why not hire older workers?” says Vivek Wadhwa, a professor for Duke University’s Master of Engineering Management Program and a former technology CEO himself. . “They usually have a knowledge of the business, and even if they don't know the latest technology a lot of those base technology skills make it easier to skill them up quickly on the tech side.”

According to Dr. Kate Kaiser of Marquette University's College of Business, tapping into a pool of candidates who have a lot of business knowledge but limited technology skills is often the way to go.

“I have always heard people tell me they can easily teach the business people the technology, but it is a lot harder to teach the tech people the business,” says Kaiser, a professor in IT who belongs to  the Society for Information Management and frequently leads IT skills research for the group. “Besides, technology is constantly changing, so you've got to relearn these things anyway.”

5. ... And the vigor of youth.
Young candidates also offer distinct advantages. Though they are lacking in experience, they are usually eager to learn and their skills can be molded exactly to an organization's needs. One of the easiest ways to hook them while they're young is to start up an internship or co-op program and strive to hire the best students at graduation.

“Internships to me are a win-win way to recruit,” Kaiser says, explaining that students gain experience no matter what and employers have the opportunity to train future employees cheaply and effectively recruit the best candidates before the competition even gets a crack at them.

6. Implement job rotation.
Training employees doesn't have to be all about mentorship and classroom training. In fact, some experts are recommending enterprises put employees through plenty of good old fashioned on-the-job training. A formal job rotation program can offer junior employees the opportunity to gain all of the skills required of today's IT worker. If a company is especially keen on equipping IT workers with business-knowledge, it might even make sense to implement a rotation program that gets IT employees working in other non-technical departments.

“Willingness to hire at the entry level is an indicator of a CIO’s overall commitment to developing future IT staff,” wrote former Forrester analyst Samuel Bright last fall. “And job rotation becomes a tool to facilitate this development by accelerating the learning of entry-level hires, as well as updating the knowledge set of existing employees. As IT matures, CIOs will view their people as assets to be invested and cultivated. This mind shift translates into specific strategies for talent development, including rotation.”

Job rotation is also a very effective way of training future leaders by allowing them to get a first-hand glimpse of many different aspects of the IT department and the business at large, he wrote.

“IT organizations that are grooming future directors should rotate future leaders into different roles within IT to broaden their expertise and into different roles in other businessfunctions to broaden their perspective,” Bright says. “IT-to-business rotation is tougher to implement but enables future directors to build relationships with business manager counterparts.”

7. Leverage teleworkers.
One of the quickest ways an employer can broaden its field of qualified candidates for a job is to open up the search geographically. Often a search can be stymied by the fact that there might only be one or two people in a given area with the exact qualifications to do the job and there is no guarantee they're looking for something new.

Implementing a telework program is not only an inventive way to effectively open up a search geographically, it can also be a strong work benefit to those who would prefer working from home.

“Telecommuting has been seemingly more of an available option these days,” Han says. “That does widen the pool of candidates, especially when you have a quality candidate who might have an hour commute and wouldn't normally take the job. When telecommuting is an option and they can work remotely even part of the week a company is more likely to attract and retain them.”

8. Make the work environment enviable.
When an employer invests the proper amount in its staff training, the importance of hiring teachable candidates and retaining them after training ratchets up considerably. While offering a commensurate base salary is certainly an important piece of the puzzle, there are many other ways to compensate employees without spending a fortune.

“Creative incentives are important, things as easy as offering food at the office, maybe providing lunch or offering soft drinks can create a positive environment,” Han says. “Being able to present things like that to a candidate looking at multiple offers can really show them that the company cares about its people.”