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Much has been made about the dearth of tech professionals and the stress organizations are feeling trying to find them. A new McKinsey article makes the case for hiring people from “more unconventional backgrounds.”

The report acknowledges that this is “hard to put into practice,” noting that “hiring managers are skittish about choosing people with learning curves to fill mission-critical roles.”

Yet, the study finds “people are capable of mastering distinctly new skills and that unconventional tech hires are not so unconventional after all. But, the willingness to hire them and the commitment to help them expand their capabilities require a shift in thinking.”

This is a tactic that companies should take, McKinsey said. Demand is growing exponentially for skills including software engineering, data management, platform design, analytics-based automation, customer experience design and cybersecurity. Eighty-seven percent of global senior executive respondents said their companies were unprepared to address the digital skills gap, and this was before the COVID-19 pandemic caused dramatic shifts toward remote work.

The pressure is particularly acute for employers outside the tech sector, the research firm noted.

Of course, there are some people who are not well-suited for tech roles, and those are people who tend to be happy in their comfort zones, said Anu Madgavkar, a partner at the McKinsey Global Institute and one of the report’s authors.

But she added that “even seasoned tech professionals with computer science degrees have to commit to continuous learning to keep up with the pace of change in the field.”

People are learning tech skills to reinvent themselves

The report’s authors said they parsed millions of online job postings to quantify the “skill distance” associated with specific job moves, referring to the share of new or nonoverlapping skills associated with the new job when someone makes a change.

People who start in tech typically overcome a skill distance of 27% every time they change roles, according to the report.

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“More intriguing for hiring managers is the subset of tech professionals who started out in other types of occupations,” the authors said. “These are not the experts who earned computer science degrees and never deviated from their chosen path.

“These are people who started out in entirely different lines of work and then reinvented themselves by adding new abilities along the way, perhaps learning to code, understand web architecture or develop apps.”

The authors called this “a common phenomenon in tech” and said that 44% of the individuals who held tech roles at the end of the period they observed transitioned from non-IT occupations.

“To do so, they had to master a greater share of distinctly new skills, and their reward for doing so is upward mobility.”

Additionally, for tech roles in particular, “it’s also worth asking whether it’s really necessary to insist on a college degree,” Madgavkar said. The study found many of the workers who transitioned into tech from other occupations did so without college degrees.

Tech roles boost people’s earnings significantly

People who transition to a tech role boost their lifetime earnings. In fact, almost two-thirds of their lifetime earnings can be attributed to what the authors called “experience capital, or skills learned on the job.”

These workers moved an average skill distance of 53%, sharply higher than when people who started out in the field made a move, according to the report.

“This indicates that workers who want to push out of their comfort zones are often capable of developing and applying more new technical skills than many hiring managers assume,” the report said. “Over the period we observed, these newcomers grew their salaries annually by 5.3% on average, higher than the 2.3 to 2.6% growth for those who started in tech.”

Tech roles unconventional workers move into

Some common tech roles that offer newcomers a starting point include application software developers, IT support specialists, web developers, administrators and document management specialists, the report said.

“From these launching pads, the sky is often the limit in tech, where things evolve so quickly that the field is wide-open for anyone who can keep up, regardless of pedigree,” the report said.

Further, nearly three in five workers who ended up as IT managers in the United States started in non-IT roles. They typically launched their careers as operations and marketing managers or management analysts.

Three key strategies to cultivating tech talent

Non-digitally native companies routinely find themselves outbid for tech talent or bypassed by highly experienced candidates, the report said. That indicates that they need to take a different approach to hiring and retaining talent—one that moves from focusing on narrow specialization and takes a broader view of people’s potential.

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Don’t overlook people within your own organization who could make a switch

Compared with those who are already in tech roles, workers with non-tech backgrounds are almost 30% more likely to leave their current employers to become systems software developers. Take an inventory of the capabilities already available internally before looking for external candidates. Creating internal mobility that enables employees to add new skills and change course can keep them energized and stem attrition.

The report cited a June 2021 Gallup survey of 15,000 U.S. workers that found 61% said the opportunity to learn new skills is an extremely or very important factor in deciding whether to stay at their current job.

Have the confidence to make bolder hiring decisions

While the McKinsey data shows that tech talent can come from a broad range of backgrounds, some employers remain conservative when it comes to hiring. People who enter tech roles for the first time typically expand their skill set by more than 50%, so employers need “a new lens” to select candidates based on their potential as well as their past.

Candidates should be assessed not only on their current responsibilities but also on their transferable skills, intrinsic capabilities and potential to succeed in new roles. Technical skills can generally be taught, so organizations should look for the kind of mindset and relevant soft skills required for the role.

Train to retain

Given that tech workers move around, employers need to assess the totality of what they offer employees, and one of the most important components is the opportunity to learn.

“Deepening and expanding the digital skills of the entire workforce pays off in the form of productivity, innovation and retention,” the report said.

Learning can take the form of structured in-person courses or digital content modules that employees can access on their own. But according to McKinsey, nothing compares to learning by doing and being coached or mentored.

“The fast-changing nature of technology means that even high-level experts are constantly learning and improvising on the job,” the authors wrote. “Opening the field to all employees—especially people who want to reinvent themselves—is a smart tactic for activating talent and staying on the cutting edge.”

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