Skilled-labor shortage could slow growth rates of larger tech companies

Expert says national initiative is needed to encourage STEM education, and we should incorporate technology into kids' lives at a young age, prepping them for careers in technology.

Expert: Labor shortage forces tech leaders to rethink contract workers

TechRepublic's Karen Roby spoke with Tim Rowley, CTO and COO of PeopleCaddie, about labor and hiring challenges in technology. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

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Karen Roby: This percentage really sticks out to me: 65% of leaders or those in the hiring position will say that hiring challenges are really hurting the industry. And as you were just telling me before we started recording, this isn't a new percentage or a new thing. This is something we've been plagued with for a long time now.

Tim Rowley: Yeah, so we have been plagued with it for a long time. I've been seeing for several years, if not decades now, the immense shortage of talent in the tech sector, if you look at the high-growth tech companies, particularly the large market-cap companies. Most of them have thousands and thousands of jobs there that they're just not able to fill because the talent just isn't there for them to do so. And that really hinders their ability to grow and really add even more net to our income.

Karen Roby: Yeah, it certainly does. And we can get here in just a minute to attracting, retaining talent, but let's start with the challenges. Why is this the case? Do we just not have enough people that are getting educated in these roles that need to be filled? Are these companies just growing so fast there's no way to keep up? I mean, where are the biggest challenges we're facing?

Tim Rowley: There has been a secular shift. Of course, years ago our economy was heavily driven by manufacturing. It is now an information economy that's driven by tech, more so in the U.S. We are the global leaders in that regard. I think that the fundamental problem is a pipeline problem. How do you get more young people to pursue STEM careers? And in particular, where I think we have a tremendous opportunity is with women and also people of color. How do we get more folks from those groups to go into STEM careers?

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Karen Roby: When we talk about just the challenges of attracting people to careers, I mean, I'm always telling my kids, "You guys need to go into coding. You need to be cybersecurity experts." I mean, these are the things we need. And just looking at what's been in the news just this last week with Colonial Pipeline and this ransomware attack. I think it's coming to the forefront more that people are realizing just how important this line of work is. I hope they are.

Tim Rowley: I think we have to really have a national initiative surrounding STEM education. And that we need to get our kids started at the very earliest ages engaging with technology to make it really second nature for them, so that it's just a natural part of their educational experience.

Karen Roby: We have to get them excited early so they'll keep growing up with this. What can companies do, though? I mean when you talk about a supply and demand like this and attracting talent and retaining talent and keeping them so they're not jumping around, what are some of the things that they can do?

Tim Rowley: I think there are a few things that can be done in the short term. We kind of talked about long term, it's a pipeline issue, doing things to address the pipeline. But in the short term I think we can utilize the available labor far more efficiently. More and more people are choosing non-traditional careers, where they're contracting and joining this gig economy, instead of becoming a traditional full-time employee that stays with a particular employer for their entire careers. And how employers choose to tap into this contingent labor pool is incredibly important.

I think we can use data and technology to make the function of that contingent labor pool far more efficient than it is today. So that if you're an employer and you only need someone for a four- or five-month project, that you can easily find that resource. But then that the end of that project, that person can find his or her next assignment very quickly and easily. And employers aren't looking at these contractors and saying, "This person is hopping around from one employer to another, what's wrong with this person?" They're looking at it and saying, "Hey, this may be a very, very good contractor that's doing wonderful work in one assignment after another."

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Karen Roby: That's a very different way to look at it. Traditionally, you think job hoppers are... there's something wrong. The pandemic, how has it changed things? And our outlook has it hurt? Has it helped this situation? Because people are, as you mentioned, working in different ways now and doing more contract work and this kind of thing. Talk a little bit about the impact of the pandemic.

Tim Rowley: The pandemic has impacted the market in a multitude of ways. Most employers, if they weren't doing it before, they were forced to embrace remote work. And now, instead of them only searching within a small geographic area, in most cases, they were able to broaden their searches and look nationwide and possibly even globally for talent. So, that's been huge, because that just opens up supply. I think that's been one of the biggest impacts, and I think there's going to be a lingering effect from that, even after things begin to normalize. Then most of these employers will continue to use remote workers as they move forward.

Karen Roby: I think the term, the "new normal" has been somewhat overused in the last couple of months, but it really is. I mean, things have changed and they're not going back in a lot of respects.

Tim Rowley: We are seeing some employers begin to shift back into the office. But we ultimately believe there will be more of a hybrid approach, where people will be allowed to work remotely at least a day or two out of the week, in addition to coming into the office. But again, particularly when it comes to technology, we think employers will be forced to utilize the remote workforce as well.

Karen Roby: Tim, touch on if you would, when we talk about the generations here, with millennials and Gen Zers, what is it that they're looking for? What are we hearing from them, what they want?

Tim Rowley: We've seen a pronounced shift, because in the past in the contingent labor market, the independent contractors, that segment of the market was heavily dominated by older professionals, people in later stages of their careers. But over the last few years, that's begun to change and change dramatically. Now the largest cohort that makes up the independent contractor pool is actually millennials. And we're also seeing that Gen Z segment grow more rapidly than any other segment of that gig workforce. So you have these younger professionals that are choosing that contract lifestyle, because it provides them with more flexibility. Instead of people who in the past, may not have been able to find a permanent job and were kind of forced to do contracting. In today's environment, these younger professionals are choosing to do contract.

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Karen Roby: Right. They're seeking out that type of situation, which I can certainly understand. What about upskilling? Are you seeing companies are doing that, that they're taking folks in other roles and training them in different types of work?

Tim Rowley: All of our clients are talking about upskilling. But it's still the talent, that's more of an intermediate-term solution. It takes a while to make that happen. And then with the fluidity within the workforce, once you make that investment to upskill someone, that person could easily leave and go off and find another higher-paying opportunity elsewhere in the marketplace. So, that's something that employers are candidly still grappling with, and I think cautiously invest in them.

Karen Roby: I can understand that. And Tim, before we close out let me ask you, you are the CTO there of PeopleCaddie. I've talked to a lot of CTOs, CIOs, CISOs over the last, say six months to a year. Many of them saying, "I'm exhausted." The shift for companies that weren't set up to work remotely, that was such a huge undertaking in such a short amount of time. It seems like this has been a very tough year though, for people in tech, especially in those leadership roles.

Tim Rowley: Yes. The Zoom environment has been quite challenging. You probably heard some people begin to talk about Zoom fatigue. And a few companies have even gone out or gone as far as to say on certain days of the week, the company will not have any Zoom calls. So, we're trying to address some of these new issues that a year and a half ago, you wouldn't even have anticipated or needed to think about. So you have to be dynamic, you have to adapt. We try to constantly talk to our employees, to take their temperature, to understand their needs and to proactively do whatever we can to address those.

Karen Roby: Right. So many layers to this, Tim. So many things that are interesting to say, "A year from now, we're going to look back and say this or this." Things change really quickly.

Tim Rowley: Yes. And I think the next six to 12 months will be incredibly interesting as we continue to come out of the pandemic. But I do think the shortage of labor in the tech sector is going to have a dampening effect on the growth rates of the high-flying tech companies, and commiserate a dampening effect on the growth of our overall economy.

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