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Keeping tech skills up to date stresses workers

Researchers say IT workers are stressed out about keeping their technical skills sharp. Should they suck it up, or do you need to cut them some slack?

Experts agree: Updating IT skills is a good thing. But for many IT professionals, the constant changes in technologies...

-- and the need to stay on top of them -- stresses them out.

The first stress they have to deal with is the change in culture, because frankly these people -- they're not very resilient when it comes to change.
Bob Fecteau
Nicole Haggerty, an assistant professor at the Richard Ivey School of Business at the University of Western Ontario, said constant innovation in technology often "destroys the competencies" of IT workers because new technologies come along that require new skills. Legacy technologies remain relevant, but the demand for those skills shrinks.

Haggerty and her colleagues closely studied more than a dozen IT professionals and assessed how they deal with stress on the job.

"In other areas of the business, professionals add to what they know," Haggerty said. "IT workers are always in rebuilding mode. When a new technology package comes along, what they did know doesn't matter. They've got to go about rebuilding a whole new set of skills."

It is for precisely this reason that Bob Fecteau is so careful with the technology he introduces as CIO for the customer solutions operating group at BAE Systems PLC, a defense contractor in Farnborough, Hampshire.

Fecteau said bringing new technology into his organization not only forces his staff to learn new skills, but it also forces a change in culture.

"The first stress they have to deal with is the change in culture, because frankly these people -- they're not very resilient when it comes to change," Fecteau said. "They get accustomed to programming in a certain language. Introducing .NET is a big cultural shift for people who program for C+.

"Sometimes you get apathy where people don't absolutely support the program, and in other places you get some types of legacy knowledge carried over that make improving the business process more difficult. It's not as easy as buying a new technology and just using it," Fecteau said.

He said he knows that if he implements a financial management application from Oracle for his 79,000-employee company and then later tries to implement an enterprise resource planning application from an Oracle competitor, the Oracle programmers in his organization will resist.

Fecteau said he's conscious of the need to keep his employees up to date with the latest technical knowledge.

"We have focus training programs," he said. "We spend multiple millions of dollars a year on training programs. We encourage people to be certified in the latest technology. We make sure the training opportunities are existing to support these guys in the best way we can."

Watch for signs of stress

Haggerty said CIOs face many risks if they don't monitor the stress levels induced by new technologies.

"I think the biggest risk is losing valuable assets in their IT professionals," she said. "Then there is burnout, lost productivity. It can be an easy thing for management to overlook. They see an opportunity to upgrade their staff's skills and get a week of training. And then that it wasn't sort of a one-off thing. It's sort of an ever-present thing that they have to deal with."

Haggerty said CIOs need to be aware that stress caused by pressures to keep skills up-to-date is an ongoing pressure. She said CIOs need to give people time to update their skills. Employees should get time on the job to play around with new technology, regardless of whether implementation is imminent.

Ron Maillette, executive vice president and CIO of Education Corporation of America in Birmingham, Ala., said IT workers in his organization don't stress over or resist new technologies. And they don't struggle to keep their skills up to date. He said their stress comes from trying to figure out how best to use new technologies to enable the business.

"I actually find that my team is really excited about learning technologies because the choices out there today are really outstanding," Maillette said. "The stress, to the degree it is felt, is [from] trying to ensure we deliver the best enables for the business and to do this in a cost-effective, timely manner in view of the wide variety of solutions."

More on IT skills
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Tech skills not so important anymore, says CIOs
Vincent Fattore, director of IT at Senior Lifestyle Corp. in Chicago, said his people are stressed out because there aren't enough people on projects to help them deliver. He has 15 IT staff members supporting a 7,500-person company.

"And the time frame to get things done is really short, so they're working a lot of hours and they have a hard enough time finishing it, which comes from different people in the company setting unreasonable goals," Fattore said.

"We've been short-handed recently, and projects have been shifted to a majority of people who have no clue what to do with a project itself. It becomes a trial-and-error situation, where people are stumbling to get things done. We take it day by day."

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Shamus McGillicuddy, News Writer

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