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Tech skills not so important anymore, say CIOs

New polling data shows CIOs want more project management competency from employees and better so-called soft skills.

A new poll commissioned by Robert Half Technology shows that CIOs want employees with better technical skills -- but not nearly as much as they did in 2001, the last time the question was asked.

This year, project management skills ranked nearly as high on the list as technical skills, and the so-called soft skills -- being able to talk, write, organize and get along with others -- are rising in importance, said John Estes, vice president at the Menlo Park, Calif.-based recruiting firm.

Technical skills -- three years of .Net, two years of Java, what have you
-- are almost a given.

John Estes
vice presidentRobert Half Technology
"When we have a client who sends a consultant back to us, the vast majority of the time they are sending this person back is not because of technical issues, but for something that falls under that broad category of soft skills -- whether it is poor communication skills, can't work on a team, or can't take instruction," Estes said.

The survey asked 1,400 CIOs at companies with 100 or more employees to choose "the one area" where their employees most needed improvement. Technical skills topped the list at 25%. Six years ago, however, that number was 34%.

Project management skills came in a close second, cited by 23% of CIOs, and that marks a sea change, Estes says. The business skills required to manage projects are as much in demand today as technical ability, a reflection of how companies use IT.

"Technical skills -- three years of .Net, two years of Java, what have you -- are almost a given," he said.

Estes traces the demand for better project management skills to the dot-com bubble, when return on investment disappeared from the IT lexicon.

Areas in which CIOs say their IT staff could improve
Technical abilities 25%
Project management skills 23%
Verbal and written communication abilities 15%
Organizational skills 14%
Interpersonal skills 12%
None/no improvements needed 3%
Other/don't know 8%
"It was build, build, build, go, go, go," Estes said. "CIOs and their bosses have long memories of the dot-com abuse. Now the question is, 'How will this impact the bottom line? Why is your former employer better off because you worked there?'"

Consultant and veteran project manager David Pinkard says that one reason project management skills are in short supply is that project managers are often the first to go when companies look to cut costs.

"Many organizations don't see project managers as contributors to the day-to-day operations. Therefore, it is easy to justify eliminating dedicated project managers as not being key operational people," said Pinkard, who has managed projects for A.G. Edwards Inc., Bank of America Corp., IBM and others over the past decade.

Managing projects requires sophisticated training and experience, Pinkard said. CIOs who look at project management skills as part of being "well rounded," or as a part-time job, don't appreciate the time -- or documentation -- requisite for most projects, Pinkard said. "Project management is not just another skill you pick up along the way."

Pinkard, who belongs to the Project Management Institute, a professional and certifying association for project managers, said he also believes some CIOs place too much emphasis on certification. "Regardless of actual experience or skills, employers are refusing to look at candidates who are not certified," he said.

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Employers are very demanding, agrees Robert Half's Estes -- an attitude he finds "a bit odd" in today's market.

"There is no question we're in an employee-driven market," Estes said. Businesses and IT budgets have recovered from the early 2000s recession, but companies continue to be "very picky" about who they bring on board.

"The downturn was so long that some hiring managers got comfortable with having the luxury of waiting for another candidate -- 'Show me another one.' Nowadays they do that -- and guess what? Candidates are taking other deals," Estes said.

"But some companies still haven't come around to the fact that they'd better streamline their hiring processes, or they are going to lose out on talent. "

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Linda Tucci, Senior News Writer

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