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Is the tech hiring headache all the HR department's fault?

Tech hiring is fast and furious, and managing it is fraught with problems. But are CIOs right in blaming their human resources department?

When it comes to the tech hiring crisis that many CIOs face today, the causes are myriad and the headaches are of migraine proportions. It's a daunting task to find people who can keep up with the breakneck pace of new technology and cater to changing business needs. Factor in another requirement -- to adapt to an IT organization morphing from "command and control" to "customer comes first" -- and suddenly IT talent shortages amid an 8.2% unemployment rate don't seem so far-fetched. If granted a magic bullet, where would CIOs aim it? At their human resources (HR) department.

"Far and away, the No. 1 thing … CIOs said is, 'I would put another person in the HR department who is specifically dedicated to recruiting for me,'" said Todd Thibodeaux, president and CEO at Downers Grove, Ill.-based CompTIA (Computing Technology Industry Association), which recently published a study on the IT skills gap. "CIOs say they are just not getting the attention they need."

There's a shared sense that IT is a lesser priority for HR departments and outside recruiters alike, said Thibodeaux, who recently spent a number of weeks meeting with CIOs across the U.S. "They are trying to find salespeople, they're trying to find marketing people, and IT has fallen rungs down the rack," he said.

But is it fair to lay the blame at the feet of the HR department? The answer is tricky, say a number of people who track tech hiring. A large part of the problem inherent in tech hiring today is that there are major differences in how people define even the most basic IT roles because even those roles aren't exactly basic. Within every role, there's a variation in the systems that an employee needs to know.

Managing tech talent these days is fast and furious. HR has trouble keeping up, and so do CIOs.

"A business analyst may need to do detailed requirements development for COBOL in one company and process design with a BPM [business process management] tool in another. Web developers, network engineers, and other meat-and-potatoes roles in IT all suffer from this," said Marc Cecere, Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research Inc.'s principal analyst serving CIOs, and an expert in the design of IT organizations.

The problem is, if anything, compounded when hiring for senior IT positions, Cecere said. "The variability is even greater. An architect in one firm may primarily be a strategist, setting direction, defining roadmaps, whereas in another firm they primarily work on projects."

Competing with business execs for tech hiring

One reason CIOs could find themselves at the bottom of the HR totem pole is that they are only one executive group among many now hiring people with IT talent, said David Foote, CEO at research firm Foote Partners LLC in Vero Beach, Fla. "I would argue that their participation and influence in tech hiring decisions in the enterprise have been steadily declining. That's because only about one-fifth of the workforce who possess tech skills as a condition of their employment are now under the direct control of CIOs," he said.

Foote nevertheless agreed that CIO-HR disconnects are more acute around "pure tech" hiring than around hybrid IT-business hires, precisely because purely technology roles tend to call for different combinations of deep tech skills in one individual. The range of skills required in cloud computing is a prime example. "It's hard to leverage the benefits of the cloud without hiring people who know how to develop applications specific to the cloud; estimate computing capacity in the cloud; integrate services from different cloud vendors; configure and support cloud-based services; [and] secure business processes and data that are being relocated to private, public and hybrid clouds. And that's just to mention a few specialized talents that are not in the tool belt yet of experienced engineers, resource planners, architects and administrators," said Foote, whose firm has been tracking certified and noncertified IT skills since 1999.

Mobile computing, big data and analytics present the same problems. "Managing tech talent these days is fast and furious. HR has trouble keeping up, and so do CIOs," Foote said.

Tech hiring: Are you speaking to me?

One of the root causes of the HR-CIO disconnect on tech hiring -- especially with regard to hard technology skills -- is the rising use of keywords in candidate searches, said Judy Homer, president at the New York IT executive search firm JB Homer Associates Inc. Its employees who have come from other technology search agencies talk of being instructed by clients' HR departments to send only résumés with the exact keywords they are looking for.

"There is no conversation at all. The recruiter from the company has learned nothing. The placement agency has learned nothing. When you start relying on keywords to fill a position, it is extremely difficult to find the right candidate," Homer said.

The prescription that will alleviate tech hiring headaches, experts agreed, is teamwork. The HR departments that most often fail to find the right person for an IT job are those where the CIO has failed to develop a relationship with the people doing the hiring. That's especially true in a market where the pool is shallow for talent that is "in the moment" of current technology trends, Homer said. "Everyone is going to the same sources. CIOs who don't build relationships with HR have a real issue."

CIOs who are building successful IT organizations aren't blaming HR, Foote said. "It's hard work, but the CIOs I know who do this don't complain about their HR departments being roadblocks," he said. "They know that it's their responsibility to find and retain talent if they're going to be successful CIOs -- they find a way to get it done."

In the second part of this story, Dear CIO: How to help HR help you on technology hiring, taps experts for ways that CIOs can help their HR departments help them.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Linda Tucci, executive editor.

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