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Twelve ways to resolve the IT skills gap

Listen up IT executives, it's time to stop pondering the IT skills gap and adapt leadership, training and recruiting styles to resolve it. IT and business strategist Harvey Koeppel explains how.

As information technology executives, we have all been on a talent quest for that elusive individual who will check off every job criteria box on the recruitment form. Perhaps not coincidentally, we have thousands of job openings that remain unfilled because we cannot find the right people with the right skills to fill the positions. When we can't find those perfect individuals with those unique sets of expertise and experience, we call that an IT talent shortage, or a gap. 

I find it fascinating how, almost by magic, we morph our collective individual challenges into an industry-wide problem and diminish our responsibility for rising to the occasion.  The problem I see is that by abdicating our individual responsibilities to an amorphous industry, national or even more insolvable global condition, we become somewhat less invested in finding solutions since, for most of us, dealing with global conditions is well above our pay grades. We spend much more of our time writing blogs and attending conferences to discuss these problems, at the expense of actually finding workable solutions. In this manner of thinking and acting, we consign ourselves to a world of suboptimal outcomes and results. And then we wonder why IT projects have a global reputation for being over budget, delivered too late and significantly short of business expectations. ROTFLMAO.

I therefore propose that we do what we do best: create new jargon. I suggest that we christen the talent shortage with a new name that more accurately describes what is actually going on. I propose that what we have is not an IT skills gap but rather a leadership gap.  Allow me to explain.

"It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future." - Yogi Berra

All good leaders have a clear understanding of the present state of things, a good vision of the intended future state, the communications skills to articulate the vision, and the motivational skills to inspire people to plan and act in harmony to achieve that vision. Because the unexpected happens along the way, good leaders also have the ability to efficiently and effectively adapt to changes, and to course-correct as needed.

Our world is filled with examples of leaders with visions for how changes within the present state of things will create problems, gaps, shortages and corresponding threats to competitiveness and progress of all kinds. Here are a few of my favorites:

1828

"Rail travel at high speed is not possible because passengers, unable to breathe, would die of asphyxia."

 

Dr. Dionysys Larder, professor of Natural Philosophy and Astronomy at University College, London
1876

"The telephone has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication."

 

William Orton, president of Western Union
1883

"X-rays will prove to be a hoax."

 

Lord Kelvin, president of President of the Royal Society
1903 "The horse is here to stay but the automobile is only a novelty – a fad."

The president of Michigan Savings Bank advising Henry Ford's lawyer not to invest in the Ford Motor Co.

 

1936

"A rocket will never be able to leave the Earth’s atmosphere."

 

The New York Times
1955

"It [rock & roll] will be gone by June."

 

Variety Magazine

 

1959

"The world potential market for copying machines is 5,000 at most."

 

An IBM executive said to the eventual founders of Xerox
1962 "The Beatles have no future in show business." Dick Rowe, senior A&R executive with Decca Records
1966

"Remote shopping, while entirely feasible, will flop."

 

Time Magazine
2005

"Next Christmas the iPod will be dead, finished, gone, kaput."

 

Lord Alan Sugar, English business magnate
2007

"There’s no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share.  No chance."

 

Steve Ballmer, former Microsoft CEO

Many of these quotes, ill-fated as they may have been, are attributed to some of the greatest luminaries the world has seen (and a few not so much). My intent here is not to be pejorative, but rather illustrate the point that even the greatest of us are sometimes wrong. The issue is not about being right or wrong -- it's about realizing the world went in a different direction than we planned for, and it’s about adapting to the new direction in different ways that maximize the probability of successful outcomes.

Twleve steps to fill the IT skills gap

Change is hard. It means looking at, thinking about and, importantly, doing things differently. Listen up people: … the world going in different directions from what we planned for is the past, present and future state of our IT industry. Don't focus on change being hard -- focus on change as an opportunity. Leading and managing your IT organization and your enterprise through change is the ticket to enabling sustenance and growth (and likely your career).

So the next time you're having trouble recruiting that (unrealistic) ideal candidate  with a:

  • M.S. in computer science and concentration in in data sciences
  • an MBA
  • a minimum of five years of experience with mobile application design and development,
  • cybersecurity and risk management experience
  • proficiency in HTML5
  • semantic web architecture and design,
  • social media,
  • OpenStack,
  •  Hadoop,
  • HDFSand NoSQL
  • experience implementing public, private and hybrid clouds
  • and fluency in Mandarin.

Consider instead these 12 ways to fulfill your IT team's needs.

  1. Cancel your next business trip to the IT skills gap symposium in Waikiki.
  2. Look at your workforce for educational background or of career development interests in your target skillset areas. Offer these individuals skills training to the maximum extent possible.
  3. Build continuous learning, training and retraining activities directly into your job descriptions and career development opportunities across the board.
  4. Consider sponsoring internal and external training and education for your staff at all levels. Budgeting for staff development is a much easier problem to solve than budgeting for the replacement of critical staff.
  5. Partner with high schools, colleges and universities in your area to better understand their curriculum and content, and to give them a better understanding of your entry-level and ongoing hiring requirements.
  6. Collaborate with business partners and vendors who have staff trained in the new technologies you are seeking to deploy. Staff projects with a mix of internal and external resources and ensure that training, education and technology transfer between the vendor partner and internal employees are key program deliverables.
  7. Address legacy technology staffing issues with a combination of incentives (monetary, new skills training, etc.), as well aslifestyle work arrangements such as alternative work schedules and work locations.
  8. Leverage legacy technology staff as mentors and coaches to incoming and more junior team members. The opportunity to give back to the enterprise or industry increases job satisfaction and is a major element of retention for this key group of IT staff.
  9. Give serious consideration to hiring more mature IT staff. Those who may be at later points in their careers may be more flexible about the specific nature of the day-to-day work that they are assigned.
  10. Work with your internal and external executive search and IT staff recruitment resources to streamline what are often very lengthy and cumbersome hiring processes.
  11. Ensure you do not overcommit internal resources to a vendor partnership when delivering new product or services. You may not have the talent on your team to fulfill the project, particularly in emerging technology areas.
  12. Balance your team's bench strength to meet today's demands and continuously refine and rebuild your players to support your enterprise business vision and your IT vision.

Having the right bench strength at the right time -- i.e., closing the IT skills gap -- is an ongoing leadership process, never a once-and-done deliverable.

Let me know what you think.  Post a comment or drop me a note at hrkoeppel@aol.com.  Discuss, debate or even argue – let’s continue the conversation …

Next Steps

IT skills gap isn't the only tech jargon expert Harvey Koepell would like to do away with. Read his comical take on the meaning of IoT, his roadmap for comprehensive BYOD and his view on how SMAC is ushering in a new business era.

This was last published in November 2014

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How is your company addressing the IT skills gap?
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The best way to address the gap in IT skills is to attack rather than defend. By that, I mean that instead of waiting to find the perfect candidate with all the skills you need, you instead find a candidate with a solid IT background and a history of taking on new certifications, and you help that person obtain the necessary skill set to be successful in your IT environment.
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I really identify with opportunities to collaborate with educational institutions. When I was a student, I participated in the co-operative education degree program at my university. Working in IT before completing my degree helped me to select for skills I wanted to develop and to rule out other work opportunities that didn't fit me at the time. I found that my work prospects definitely improved and I was more interested in my courses when they clearly supported my work.
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I agree 100% with Harvey's comments. I've been telling everyone who will listen the same thing for years. I need a job. I'm working on an MS in IT with a concentration in BI and Analytics. My husband needs a better job. He has a BA in Software Engineering. He can't get a job in Software Engineering because he doesn't have the experience. We both would be great employees for some lucky business. It is my belief there are enough people who have IT training or are getting IT training to fill all the open positions in the US. Nobody wants to hire in IT unless you have at least 5 years of experience, which is considered entry-level. How can that be entry-level? How can you get experience if no one will hire you to get experience?
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I totally agree. There is no "skills gap" but there is this unrealistic expectation that the perfect candidate exists. I have learned a hard lesson over the years. You hire someone for what they can do, but you fire them for who they are. Back in the early days of my programming career, there were no CS majors. So, we had a great mix of people from all educational backgrounds that knew how to THINK. Not only that, but today, companies see employees as disposable. So many companies are hedging their bets by doing "contract to hire." Little or no commitment on the part of the company to actually invest in a person's growth. Personally, I have stopped referred well-qualified candidates even to my best clients. It makes me look bad to the person when they are obviously qualified, but are not hired because they can't meet some obscure criteria. I agree - what is really needed is leadership and less complaining. Too many good people need jobs.
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I really identify with your point about collaboration with educational institutions. When I was a college student, I participated in the co-operative education program at my university. My experiences of real-world needs for IT skills in my daily work assignments encouraged me to enroll in courses when I returned to school at the end of the semester. In turn, my developing interest in particular areas of study helped me to select which job opportunities would fit me best. The symbiotic relationship was so beneficial for me that I advocated for students in the degree program within the university system. I believe that early experiences of the IT working world help students to become better candidates even before graduation.
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