Is tech recruitment broken? Clueless HR blamed for demanding the impossible from IT workers

Those working in the tech industry say the perennial skills shortage stems as much from firms' sky-high expectations as it does from a dearth of manpower.

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If you were hiring electricians, would you expect them to be a dab hand at plastering, proficient at carpentry and a competent carpet fitter?

Probably not, so why do recruiters expect developers, sysadmins and other IT workers to have such a ludicrously wide range of skills?

That was the question asked by TechRepublic readers following a recent article on IT skills shortages.

Those working in the IT industry say job ads frequently demand a skillset so large or so specific that very few applicants can ever match up.

"Recruiters look for unicorns who match their 27-point wish list and don't read in depth or talk to anyone to find out what they're about," said one reader.

"And heaven forbid you don't have the latest framework that got hot a year ago, even if you have decades of experience and have learned a dozen languages."

SEE: If there's a tech skills shortage, why are so many computer graduates unemployed?

Readers listed examples of non-sensical or impossible expectations, including a post for a Linux Sys Admin role demanding someone with skills related to Windows sysadmin, systems engineering, devops, sales, level 1-2-3 support, C++ and Java programming, network engineering and network operations.

In general, firms have a tendency to want to hire fully-formed employees from day one, rather than someone they train up on the job, according James Milligan, director of IT recruitment for the UK and Ireland at Hays.

"Organizations tend to want to hire the final product, rather hiring people with the competencies to do the job," he said.

"So you end up with these job descriptions which are long shopping list of skills, which, if you look at the open market, are not readily available."

Even if someone were available with 100 percent of the skills needed to do a job, they'd be unlikely to apply for it, he said, because there'd be no personal development.

"What they [businesses] should do is employ somebody with 50 or 60 percent of the skillset, where there's a lot of scope of personal development for that individual," he said.

"They need to be a lot more open minded in terms of the type of person they're looking for and the amount of investment they are prepared to put into them."

Compounding firms' unrealistic expectations of applicants, according to IT workers, are HR employees who are often engaged in little more than a box-ticking exercise when it comes to assessing an applicant's skills, without understanding how those skills relate to the role on offer.

"This situation is magnified drastically by the non-technical gate keepers (recruiters) that have no clue how to evaluate someone technical, other than compare the brand names of each software tool to a list that has been given to them," said another TR commenter.

"For example, someone that may have a PhD and have done a dissertation on inversion of control (IoC) cannot get a job because the company uses Spring and the student has not used that particular IoC container."

Another tech industry worker and TR commenter reported that HR at his firm tweaked a posting for a technical role to add requirements that "we didn't need, never mentioned and didn't go along with the position".

"It took some convincing by our boss to get HR to change some of their wording. And this isn't a new phenomenon."

Others blamed HR for misunderstanding the scope of the IT role being advertised, for example, asking for every skill on a list given to them by a technical manager, when the manager is seeking someone proficient in just one of those skills.

Hays' Milligan described the problem of non-technical gatekeepers blocking good candidates as "a fundamental issue in large organizations where technology is not their core function".

"Look at more traditional organizations, say a bank, where recruiting technology people might only be 10 to 30 percent of the job. They firmly have issues with understanding that whilst a CV says 'X, Y and Z', it also means that person can do 'A, B and C'. They don't understand the context of technology.

"If they don't have that context, and the knowledge around which skills relate to what, they could screen out somebody who'd be very good for the job. We definitely see that on a regular basis."

He echoed the warning given by university chiefs last week about making higher education courses too focused on teaching skills demanded by businesses. Milligan stressed that it is more important for computer science graduates to understand the fundamentals so they are able to rapidly grasp new tech as it emerges, rather than focus too heavily on learning specific skills, which will eventually become out of date.

"There needs to be a radical change in thinking around how people are hired. Expecting to hire a computer science graduate who can come in and do a job, day one, is unrealistic," he said.

"We should also look at things like modern apprenticeships, because university is not necessarily the route that everybody wants to go."

Despite businesses having complained about skills shortages for many years, UK firms have proved increasingly unwilling to bridge this gap by funding IT apprenticeships, with the number of people securing placements dropping by one third in 2014, despite a massive rise in the numbers applying.

The government is now pushing firms to accept more apprentices by levying a tax on the largest firms to fund three million new placements by 2020.

Joanna Poplawska, executive director for The Corporate IT Forum (CITF) -- the membership organisation for IT leaders at FTSE 250 organizations -- acknowledged that there was room for improvement in how large firms recruit for IT roles.

"Sometimes a job advertisement reflects wishful thinking. It could be more realistic," she said.

"It's not because of a lack of willingness to compromise, it's due to the fact there's maybe internal miscommunication between HR and IT management or maybe lack of time and resources to dedicate enough attention to run really effective recruitment policies."

While businesses continue to complain about an IT skills shortage, a relatively high proportion of UK computer science graduates struggle to find work, with 11.7 percent unemployed six months after leaving university. Compared to graduates in related disciplines - in science, technology, engineering and mathematics - their employment prospects are particularly poor.

But, in spite of this apparent contradiction, Poplawska challenged the idea that businesses were not willing to spend money on training staff.

"I disagree with this view. What I tend to see, with every organization that is a part of our membership, is how much time and funding goes into training and development of people."

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