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Falling into the tech skills gap? Try a new recruiting tack

Organizations forging into the digital future often come up short in a search for talent. But there are novel ways to close the tech skills gap, say execs at the MIT Sloan CIO Symposium.

As organizations small and large turn to digital business models, many are looking at new ways of identifying and acquiring the right people to run them.

At the 2016 MIT Sloan CIO Symposium in Cambridge, Mass., earlier this month, three executives shared their organizations' views on talent acquisition in the digital age and the innovative methods they're using to close what's widely seen to be a tech skills gap -- from using data to pinpoint job candidates to looking beyond four-year universities and colleges.

George Westerman, principal research scientist at the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy, said typically when the economy is good, there are lots of job openings and low unemployment. Conversely, when the economy is slow, the number of job openings goes down and unemployment rises. But "something weird happened in 2009," he said. It was in the thick of the Great Recession: While unemployment remained high, the number of job openings swelled.

The skills gap is a common theme in IT: high demand for the right combination of technical, supervisory and communication skills and supply that can't keep pace.

A college try

It's evident to Steve Phillips, CIO at Avnet Inc., which sells electronics components. He sees a shortage of "great technical people" who have an equal dose of business savvy.

Steve Phillips, CIO at Avnet Inc., speaks on a panel on cultivating skills in the digital age, at the MIT Sloan CIO Symposium in Cambridge, Mass., on May 18.

He's also worried about getting the best crop of new graduates for the business. Avnet, in Phoenix, is more than 700 miles from Silicon Valley, but it still has to compete with the draw of the technology mecca's high salaries and cultural cool.

"Boy, it's like a magnet. It sucks up resources, Silicon Valley does," Phillips said.

So the company strengthened bonds with nearby Arizona State University, building deeper relationships with professors and students and opening the floodgates to its intern program. It has worked well so far, as the company now has more summertime interns than it is looking to hire.

"We're out there marketing ourselves to the university, to the students of the university. And I still think we've got a ways to go," Phillips said.

Unblinding with science

Karen Kocher, chief learning officer for health insurance company Cigna, said it's not only a challenge to find candidates with technology and business skills. Finding IT people who can collaborate with others in the organization and understand the wants and needs of customers is especially tough. Those aren't traits that are visible to the naked eye.

"If you were to ask us who are the influencers in our organization, most of the people that we would name -- at least half of those would be incorrect," Kocher said. In other words, you might think you know the characteristics of the people who influence others, but you're probably wrong.

Karen Kocher, chief learning officer at Cigna, speaks at the MIT Sloan CIO Symposium in Cambridge, Mass., on May 18. To her left is Steve Phillips, CIO at Avnet Inc.

To find the skills it wants for its workforce, Cigna bases searches on hard data. It uses tools such as organizational network analysis, a quantitative technique for studying communication, "to really uncover people that are influencers, that are connectors and brokers and understand the importance of that, understand their aptitude in that and how to develop others to be more like that."

CIOs, she said, could play a pivotal role in drawing attention to and implementing such data-based recruiting methods.

Diamonds in the rough

Gerald Chertavian, CEO and founder of Boston nonprofit Year Up, which matches low-income young people with training and jobs, said the supply-and-demand calculus of job-candidate skills is more "market failure" than tech skills gap.

When employers look at college-educated candidates, he said, they're typically thinking of students between the ages of 18 and 22 who earned a bachelor's degree in four years. But that's a small percentage, he said -- just eight out of 100 Americans.

"So the question is: How are we looking at talent? How are we determining who's talented?" he said. "What proxies are we using for that which may or may not introduce a lot of bias?"

Year Up gives 18-to-24-year olds who were "not born in the right ZIP code" six months of professional and technical training and then helps them get internships and jobs with companies such as Citigroup, Facebook and Google. The program teaches technology topics such as JavaScript, networking and hardware repair as well as business skills like writing and time management.

"Our most forward-thinking employers are looking more broadly at pathways into their organizations that are not myopically focused on what higher education and post-secondary education used to look like as opposed to where it's headed in the next 20 years," Chertavian said.

Securing the future

His message resonated with Vineeta Kumar, a consultant at global outfit Wipro. She cited cybersecurity as one of the most important areas of concern for any digital organization. The tech industry has "come up pretty fast" in cultivating security skills, but there still aren't enough people today who know how to deal with the volume of information that needs to be deciphered and analyzed.

The problem could be cracked, Kumar said, by looking not just at students graduating from four-year universities and colleges but from specialized courses and certification programs such as Khan Academy, a nonprofit that offers free education through YouTube videos.

That, she said, would help distribute jobs to more of the people who can do them.

"Not everybody has the ability, just the way the system works, to go and take out a college loan and go through four years and have to repay it," Kumar said. "These online universities and courses that are very specialized help you land a decent job in a large corporation. I think that's going to help."

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