CXO

There is no tech skills crisis, say IT chiefs

There is no widespread skills shortage, says TechRepublic's CIO Jury - but IT workers with business skills are hard to find.

It often claimed we are suffering from an IT skills crisis, with employers struggling to find properly trained and experienced candidates to fill IT roles.

But could it be that the skills crisis is over - or perhaps was a myth to start with? Academics have pointed to a steady unemployment rate - and wages - among IT professionals, which suggests the skills shortage may not be as widespread as is often thought.

And when asked "do you think there is an IT skills crisis?" TechRepublic's exclusive panel of tech leadesr voted 'no' by a margin of seven to five.

For many CIOs it seems that basic IT skills are easily available, even if they report candidates with cutting edge tech skills and business understanding remain in short supply.

Some IT chiefs do still see a general shortage of good candidates: Mike Roberts, IT director at The London Clinic "There is a significant lack of relevant training at all levels. We need more people with practical experience."

And Shaun Beighle, CIO at the International Republican Institute said while there are plenty of candidates, they lack experience and qualifications: "When we post an opening for an IT position, even a senior IT position, we're flooded with the resumes of people whose only work experience includes a coffee shop and perhaps a retail store."

College graduates with unrealistic salary expectations and a lack of real world knowledge are another issue, he said: "Despite going through the gauntlet of getting those degrees, which is very commendable, if you sit them down in from of a server they can't even tell you what a NAT is."

Looking to the future, Michael Spears, CIO at NCCI Holdings, warned there could be trouble ahead, especially when it comes to filling junior roles: "IT enrolment in universities appears to be significantly lower than just five years ago. This tells me the problem ahead lies with entry-level positions."

With the decline in entry level jobs, thanks to automation and the offshoring of some more junior roles to destinations such as India, IT workers have been encouraged to boost their business skills. But it appears this is still an area that many candidates are falling down.

Kelly Bodway, VP of IT Universal Lighting Technologies: "Potential staff members have the technical skills but lack the integration with business skills. We have evolved to this over the last 20 years by focusing on developing the technical skill base but missed the 'so what' portion of the education and skill development."

New technologies including the cloud will mean the skills crisis becomes less of an issue, said Kevin Quealy, director of information services and facilities for Southern Baptist Conservatives of Virginia. "There may be some specific, niche areas of IT that are lacking in skills but overall I think it's not a big issue. On the flip side IT continues to be more streamlined, standardised, and easier for the non-technical professional. This, combined with more cloud service, should decrease the need for professional IT training in a lot of areas."

Rob Neil, head of business change and technology at Ashford Borough Council, said a bigger issue is the perception that most IT jobs are now graduate positions: "The profession does not need to be a 100 per cent graduate profession by any stretch of the imagination," he said.

"Couple that with degree level IT/computing courses concentrating on more commodity areas of the subject (at the expense of theoretical underpinnings) and you end up with a workforce that is skilled in some areas but without the supporting in-depth understanding that is required.

He added: "Don't get me started on the shockingly poor level of report writing and other business skills exhibited by graduates."

Jeff Cannon, IT director of Fire & Life Safety America said it remains hard to find staff with a high level of skills across multiple disciplines.

"More often, I find someone very skilled in programming, or security, or networking, or customer service/helpdesk, exchange, etc, but fewer people that are really good at all of them.  People confuse that with a lack of skillsets.  There's so much to learn, retain and keep up with that today's IT disciplines require a degree of specialization - hence, the push for cloud computing and outsourcing."

He said there is also a shortage of experience: "Just because a person happened to build a 'Hello World' app over the weekend does not qualify him/her as a developer.  Likewise, just because an employee successfully completed bootcamp and passed a Cisco or Microsoft exam doesn't mean he/she will be turned loose on my network."

David Wilson, director of IT Services at Vector CSP put the blame on managers for making bad hiring decisions: "There is a decided lack of IT understanding and knowledge in the administrative and operational branches of companies that can lead to under-hiring of IT talent, or mismanaged IT."

Gavin Megnauth, director of operations and group IT at Morgan Hunt: "There isn't a skills crisis for those organisations that have embraced both outsourcing and offshoring models with regard to how they obtain the skills they need. The supply of IT talent on a global basis is readily available and competitively priced compared to onshore skills.  The supply of either infrastructure provision and management or development expertise is increasingly becoming a "utility" to enterprises.

This week's CIO Jury was:

  • Alan Bawden, IT and operations director, the JM Group
  • Shaun Beighle CIO, International Republican Institute
  • Kelly Bodway, VP IT, Universal Lighting Technologies
  • Jeff Cannon, IT director of Fire & Life Safety America
  • Richard Storey, head of IT, Guys and St Thomas Hospital.
  • Neil Harvey, IT director, Sindlesham Court
  • Gavin Megnauth, director of operations & group IT Morgan Hunt
  • Rob Neil, head of business change & technology, Ashford Borough Council
  • Kevin Quealy, director of information services and facilities, Southern Baptist Conservatives of Virginia
  • Mike Roberts, IT director, The London Clinic
  • Michael Spears, CIO, NCCI Holdings
  • David Wilson, director of IT services, Vector CSP

The CIO Jury is composed of the first 12 members of the CIO Jury pool to respond, but tech chiefs who didn't make into the first 12 still made their opinions heard. While the majority of CIOs rejected the idea of a general skills crisis, many saw a shortage of top candidates.

Brian Wells, associate CIO at Penn Medicine said the issue was "especially acute" in the healthcare IT arena with the significant investment being made by the federal government to encourage broad adoption and meaningful use of electronic medical records.

Tim Stiles, CIO at Bremerton Housing Authority, said: "Sure, we have mechanics that specialize in their niche trade; however, we're losing our holistic thinkers, those big picture people who possess sufficient breadth of skills to tie it all together. This is, in fact, a crisis in our industry."

Adam Gerrard, CTO at Laterooms.com said: "There may be a lot of people that have worked, or do work in IT today, but there is a very limited pool of highly talented IT professionals with experience working in a global context."

Afonso Caetano, CIO at J. Macêdo in Brazil pointed out that the issue varies around the globe: "In developing countries it is more serious, because the demand for IT professionals grows regardless of IT skills crisis that really exists."

Some CIOs suggested some potential routes out of the IT skills problem.

Graham Benson, IT director at M and M Direct: "The problem is we create a vicious circle i.e. we under-invest in our people, as we are scared that if they are fully trained/qualified, they are more likely to leave - they then leave anyway, so we under-invest even more and the cycle starts again."

He added: "How about we fully invest in people, with 'golden handcuffs' (partial repayment of training fees that scales down over time) if they depart before we, the employers, have had full value from the investment we have made in them. This is a 'win-win' scenario as we have motivated team members who see a future with us and/or outside of our organisation."

Ibukun Adebayo, director of IT at Turning Point said there is a misalignment between many business leaders' understanding of what they need from IT professionals, and many IT professionals' understanding of what skills they need to obtain to meet those needs.

"To resolve the IT skills crisis going forward, academic leaders need to work with IT leaders to understand what IT skills are perceived to be lacking in the IT professionals who remain unemployed and indeed what skills we envision are needed for the future, and start updating potentially outdated IT curricula to include the business skills needed by IT professionals for now and for the future."

Matthew Oakley, group head of IT at Schroders, said: "The skills issue is about relevant technology experience married to business knowledge. We fill our roles with what we can find - but usually wish we could find better," and added: "The result is reduced productivity, reduced opportunity from our IT investment and this dents UK PLC".

Meanwhile Scott C Smith, director of technology at 32Ten Studios, said: "Hiring is difficult and learning what applicants really know is difficult. We have found that internet searching has become a crutch for so many and even embolden some applicants to say that they have skill X, because they are confident that they can heavily supplement their existing experience with a quick internet search."

Want to be part of TechRepublic's CIO Jury and have your say on the hot issues for IT decision-makers? If you are a CIO, CTO, IT director or equivalent at a large or small company, working in the private sector or in government, and you want to join TechRepublic's CIO Jury pool, or you know an IT chief who should, then get in contact.

Either click the Contact link below or email me, steve dot ranger at cbs dot com, and send your name, title, company, location, and email address.

About

Steve Ranger is the UK editor of TechRepublic, and has been writing about the impact of technology on people, business and culture for more than a decade. Before joining TechRepublic he was the editor of silicon.com.

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