“With technology changing as quickly as it does, there are more unfilled technology positions than at any time since 2000,” said Rob Doty, co-founder and managing partner of KnowledgeNet.

Doty was quoting US Department of Labor statistics and it was a message that played well at the Midmarket CIO Forum in Orlando where he gave a keynote to a group of CIOs and CMOs on Monday.

The session, “Why Yesterday’s Skills Aren’t Enough to Survive Today’s Technology Transformation,” dealt with the tricky issues of IT hiring, retention, and finding people with the right skills.

Speaking of the skills gap, Doty gave the example of one company that KnowledgeNet worked with that created a technical test to give to prospective job applicants for an entry level help desk position. Of the people who applied, 47 out of 50 failed the basic test. And those are just the basic skills for an entry level position. The issue gets even more tricky when hiring for advanced and specialized positions such as data scientists and cloud architects.

SEE: 4 new job roles for the digitized, big data-fueled, cloudified enterprise (ZDNet)

What Doty, whose company sells online instructor-led courses, asserted was that smart companies are seeing the ROI of using elearning to fill the skills gaps, since it’s almost always cheaper to train existing talent than to hire new workers–especially for the hottest skillsets in tech. The ROI can get even better now that the U.S. and Canada are offering tax credits for training and retraining workers.

One of the first challenges is blocking out the time for workers to do the training, and then getting them to take it. From a show of hands in the audience, plenty of CIOs have already invested in self-paced elearning solutions that their staff rarely use. The other end of the spectrum is classroom training where employees are forced to get out of the office for a day or even a week. But, obviously that’s expensive and disruptive.

The middle ground is online instructor-led courses like the ones KnowledgeNet offers–on Cisco, VMware, and Microsoft technologies–and MOOCs from organizations like Khan Academy and Coursera. With these courses, employees still show up and participate and have the opportunity for interaction, but they can do it from their own desks.

One of the best parts of this kind of experience is that it flips one of the traditional tenets of education on its head–that the smaller the class size, the better the education. This was a topic in my book Follow the Geeks. In the chapter about Chase Jarvis, founder of CreativeLive (which offers online courses for creative professionals), it talks about how scale can actually improve the experience for elearning.

In traditional education, Chase said, “the more people that are participating, the shittier it gets, but imagine now when you’re watching CreativeLive, all the questions and the comments that are coming in real time are categorized, and aggregated, and timecoded to a place in the video such that every next person that is watching it gets to see questions and answers created. The more people that participate in this thing, the body of knowledge gets richer and richer and richer.”

For IT courses, Doty set up an all-you-can-eat model at KnowledgeNet where the value proposition is that for about the same cost as one in-person course–$3,000–an employee can access all of KnowledgeNet’s courses (60 Cisco, 40 Microsoft, 10 VMware, a bunch of project management courses, and hundreds of labs) for a year. If you have an IT employee who is highly motivated to learn and you give them the time, the person could potentially pick up a lot of valuable new skills in one year.

That leads to another one of the general obstacles to companies training their employees–the worry that the employee will take that education and use it to get a higher paying job. As insurance, some companies ask employees to sign a retention agreement in exchange for paying for training. If the employee leaves within 6 months or a year, for example, then he or she has to reimburse the company for the cost of the training (sometimes at a prorated rate).

In some markets where there are organizations that can’t pay their IT employees full market wages, the training can be a way to enhance their compensation. That’s a pitch that Doty said has worked well for many of their customers, especially in non-profits, the public sector, and rural areas.

But, in lots of different kinds of companies, training is taking on an important dimension because of the squeeze on IT budgets and headcounts.

“The pressure is on to do more with less,” said Doty. “How do you do that? We think training is the answer.”

Where the biggest opportunity comes for most companies will be training your best people in future-leaning topics such as data science, machine learning, containers, data lakes, sentiment analysis, and predictive analytics.

Action item: Target your company’s best performers, identify the training topics that can make the biggest impact on your business, and look for vendors offering well-rated courses in those areas.

Is your organization investing more in training? If so, what types and what’s your strategy? Let us know in the comments.