IT Labor Shortage or Not, Gaps Remain

By Ericka Chickowski  |  Posted 2008-04-23

The debate over whether there are sizeable IT labor shortages in the United States is challenging and complex. There has been plenty of discussion on H-1B visas, a purported lack of computer science graduates and a cry from the human resources industry that many jobs in technology simply cannot get filled.

Nearly one in four CIOs polled by Robert Half International in a recent survey said finding skilled IT professionals is their greatest staffing challenge. It’s gone so far that major company heads like Bill Gates of Microsoft have urged the U.S. government to increase the number of H1-B visas to help fill gaps.

But to hiring managers looking for very specific qualifications, it really doesn’t matter whether there are copious amounts of technology drones in the workforce. It only matters whether their organizations can find just the right workers for the jobs at hand.

Many technology recruiters and industry association insiders believe that even though there may be enough sheer numbers of IT workers out there applying for jobs, there are still definite gaps in select skill sets that employers require to keep their IT departments running smoothly.

“It seems from the conversations we have with organizations and with both members with CompTIA and from companies that are not members but hire IT people is that there are shortages of certain skills and companies are having difficult times finding people with the right skill set,” says Steven Ostrowski, director of corporate communications for the Computer Technology Industry Association (CompTIA), which frequently conducts employment surveys.Unsurprisingly, some decidedly nontechnical skills are tops on most people’s list of difficult-to-find qualifications among IT workers.

“There’s a dearth of real talent in the IT management world, and the reason for that is that the best IT pros tend to stay out of management,” says Dan Martineau, principal at Martineau Recruiting Technology.

Ostrowski agrees, explaining that soft skills, like management, communication and understanding of business processes, are among the most lacking in the IT talent pool that CompTIA sees.

*Is there really an IT labor shortage? Some punch serious holes in to the figures

“What we’re finding and what we’re hearing is that companies no longer want people just with strong technical skills,” he says. “They need to have a combination of technical, and business knowledge in that understanding how it fits into the business interests or the business operations of the organization they work for.”

Ostrowski explains that in today’s tight economic times, many businesses are looking to squeeze as much value as they can out of their existing IT infrastructure.

“So they need people who can tell them how to take what they have today and make it work to its optimum capacity so that they can either become more productive as a business or reduce costs as a business,” he says. “And if an employee doesn’t understand how technology fits into the whole business scheme of things, then they’re not much use to their employer as an IT worker.”

Martineau concurs: “I think talented IT pros with strong business knowledge, understanding and exposure to the business will always be in high demand. Because you have to partner with the business, you have to understand the business perspective to really successfully deploy technology these days.”

The problem is, Martineau explains, that many IT workers have not adjusted their career strategy to fit the needs of their employers.

“Starting in the early 1990s, how many articles were written to people that said 'God forbid you lose your technical skills, [and] if you lose your technical skills, you’re toast’?” Martineau says. “Now, for the first time, with the advent of offshoring and outsourcing, it’s gone the other way, where it’s like, ‘God forbid you lose your management skills,’ because if you're just a coder, you're toast.”

Select Tech Skills in High Demand
For all the talk of the need for IT candidates to develop their business acumen, there are also a number of specific technical skills that headhunters and CIOs say are in short supply. Security is one example.

A recent survey of 3,500 IT professionals and employers conducted by CompTIA found that 74 percent of respondents listed security skills as the top qualifications needed by their IT departments, but only 57 percent said their employees were proficient in security. This 17-point gap between need and proficiency was the largest among the 10 categories listed in the survey, including soft skills and networking skills and Web-based technology.

“Security is top of mind and at the top of lists for everybody that we surveyed for every geography, every industry and every size of business,” Ostrowski says. “So everybody has security on their minds and rightfully so because it has gotten a lot of attention recently and a security breach could be catastrophic for business.”

Some wonder how long this skill shortfall will persist, though. As a recruiter, Martineau says he’s seen the critical need for security pros cool down in the past few years as awareness and training have improved.

“I don’t think they’re nearly as hot as they used to be; a couple of years ago, yeah, everyone and their brother was out there getting their CISSPs [Certified Information Systems Security Professional certification],” he says. “We’re not seeing the need as much anymore.”

*Is there really an IT labor shortage? Some punch serious holes in to the figures

However, Martineau has the hardest time finding senior developers with sufficient Java 2 Platform, Enterprise Edition (J2EE) skills and Web 2.0 application skills. Janet Miller, a headhunter for the high-tech recruiting firm Computer Management, has had similar experiences.

“It seems like there are plenty of networking people; there aren’t enough software developers with the right specific skills,” she explains.

For example, service-oriented architecture (SOA) and .NET developers are in high demand, but COBOL programmers can’t find a job, and even C++ developers have seen things dry up, she says. In most instances, Martineau believes that the need in these particular developer competencies comes in conjunction with senior-level experience or additional management skills.

“We have lots clients who are looking for people who have hands on Java/J2EE skills, but who’ve also been managing people over the last few years. So they need strong management skills and strong tactical skills,” he says. “A lot of times, those people don’t exist. Those are the searches I’m not interested in.”

One of the difficulties and opportunities of tech is that it changes fast. New needs for technical proficiency consistently crop up. The trick is to foresee what the next big need will be and train people before it becomes an issue.
CompTIA predicts that the next large gap will likely be in wireless skills. 

“Those people who obtain some training or skill development in the wireless computing and communications area are going to be in good shape in the not-too-distant future,” Ostrowski says. “Five years from now, everybody is going to want wireless people because everybody wants to improve mobile computing, and those skills are going to be very relevant.”

Why Are There Gaps?
As many a veteran IT job searcher will tell you, employers frequently have difficulty finding the right people with the right talents to suit their job openings because they approach the search with unrealistic expectations and insufficient compensation for what they are seeking.

“One hundred percent, the employers are unrealistic,” Miller says. “They want too much—sometimes they’ll ask for Visual Basic, .NET, XML and Java programming experience, a four year degree, certifications, and then they want someone who has a stable job history and not someone who has been a contractor for six months at one place and four months at another.”

It is sometimes difficult to explain to employers that for every skill you add to the list of requirements, the pool of qualified applicants shrinks, she notes.

“Sometimes they ask, ‘Who else is out there that also has a master’s degree, with these technical competencies, certifications and who is willing to take this level of pay?’” she said. “I say, ‘When you’ve got somebody, you’ve got to make up your mind.’ There aren’t a lot of people with all of these specific skill sets.”

According to Ostrowski, the skills gaps are partly the fault of employers who have been unwilling to train their employees. In many cases, it makes sense to hire employees without all of the requisite skills but to develop them on the job and through employer-sponsored training.

“The age-old argument that we always hear from employers is that if I train my staff or employees on something new, they are just going to go to a competitor or take  another job,” he said. “But if you talk to IT professionals, after you get past the salary issue, the thing they are looking for most is support from their employer to continue learning new skills and technology. They’re not necessarily looking to jump ship at the first opportunity.”

CompTIA advocates strongly that it is essential for employers to invest in ongoing training and development to mold their employees into exactly what they want them to be, Ostrowski explains.

“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,” he said. “Besides, if I’m interested in bringing new technology into my network, and I don't train the people on how to do it, then what is the point of the investment in the first place?

“If the workers are going to struggle to optimize what I’ve invested in, then I shouldn’t have invested in it to begin with because I’m not getting the bang for the buck out of it.”

*Is there really an IT labor shortage? Some punch serious holes in to the figures.