Take a stab at what many IT executives say is the biggest problem they face today. It's not trying to keep up with evolving technologies, fighting for market share, or figuring out new business models.
It's people. Or, rather, the lack of them.
"The biggest problem we have is just staff. The staff shortage nationally is just becoming a huge problem," said Delcie Bean, CEO of solution provider Paragus IT, Hadley, Mass. "We're all struggling for a very small group of people, and the pool's getting smaller."
The IT talent shortage is only going to get worse, according to statistics compiled by education advocate Code.org from government and educational resources. The organization predicts that in 2020 there will be 1.4 million computing jobs and only 400,000 computer-science students to fill those positions. That adds up to a $500 billion gap in the job force.
"If people don't think that's going to be a problem, they're crazy," said Bean.
As a smaller solution provider, Bean said it's harder for him find talent, as larger companies such as Amazon are able to pay double the salary he can to qualified applicants.
"We're all so desperate for the same talent that we're all uber-competitive and stealing each other's talent when there should be enough to go around," Bean said.
It's not just the technical talent that's missing, however. Allen Falcon, CEO of Cumulus Global, a Westborough, Mass.-based cloud solution provider, said that the problem isn't so much a shortage of technical talent as it is a difficulty in finding people with a strong business sense. Falcon said Cumulus Global needs not only technical people who can code, but who also have strong consulting skills to see the larger business picture and learn on their feet.
"Where we are in the industry, I'm not seeing a shortage in software development," Falcon said. "I see more difficulty in finding people with tech backgrounds who understand that tech is the means, not the end."
In an April 2013 study conducted by research firm Gartner titled "The Changing IT Career," 62 percent of respondents weighted nontechnical skills as extremely important when hiring an employee, while only 42 percent said the same about an employee's technical skills.
"When you start to talk about the IT skills shortage and say that there is a talent shortage, maybe we're actually looking for the wrong thing," said Mike Rollings, research vice president at Gartner who was involved in the study. As customers' expectations get higher and trends such as cloud, mobility and social media take root, there is a new reality: An IT company needs to be more of a critical business partner than a quick technical problem-solver.
Mark Cattini, CEO of Autotask, an East Greenbush, N.Y.-based provider of IT business management solutions, said today's IT companies have had to become more collaborative -- and more accountable. Completing projects on time is important, of course, but those projects need to add value to the end user and to the business.
"It isn't just about being the best Microsoft certified technician, it really is that business analytics skill," Cattini said. "The IT guys aren't being measured on if it's on time and if it's going to work; they're being measured on what's the business development that’s derived from this project."
WHERE TO FOCUS THE TRAINING
The problem for today's IT companies, Gartner's Rollings said, is that employee training is not keeping up with the drive toward more solution-oriented business models.
The advent of cloud computing has played a large role in accelerating that change, Falcon said. Cumulus Global finds it hard to hire talent that already has experience in the cloud -- simply because the technology is so new.
"I think it's an industrywide issue. I think it comes to the forefront in cloud," Falcon said. "It's not that we're constantly adding to the products and services we offer, it's that the products and services are evolving themselves."
The cloud takes much of the technical aspects out of IT and pushes the emphasis onto analysis and business objectives, Falcon said. He sees technical skills as mostly transferrable -- the key is finding an employee who can tap into his or her technical expertise for new situations and new technologies.
"It's hard to find people with exactly the skills we need but, on the other hand, we're not expecting a lot. What we're expecting to find are people with transferrable skills," Falcon said.
The bottom line is that as end users become more adept at using technology themselves, they expect IT to continue to add business value solutions, Autotask's Cattini said.
"It's about, when I deliver this solution to you, what does it provide to your business?" he said.
HOW CAN THE INDUSTRY FIX THIS?
The first solution to the problem lies at its source: education.
According to the Institute of Education Sciences' Center for Education Statistics, 1.7 million bachelor's degrees were awarded nationally in 2010-2011. Of that total, computer and information sciences accounted for 2.5 percent, engineering accounted for 4.45 percent, engineering technologies accounted for .98 percent, math and statistics accounted for 1 percent, and physical sciences and science tech accounted for 1.4 percent.
The problem with these graduates, however, is that they have no business education, Falcon said. The IT field is so technically focused that graduates don't look at the bigger picture until they are in the field. It would help Cumulus Global if schools placed less emphasis on coding and more on problem-solving and creative aspects.
The second solution lies in the hiring process. In the Gartner study, 95 percent of job postings didn't include any mention of nontechnical skills, creating a mismatch between what IT companies want and what they say they want, according to Rollings. This discrepancy perpetuates the cycle, he said, because it will filter out the applicants the company actually desires and attract the same type of employee over and over again.
The third problem centers on what companies are actually asking for when they're looking for an employee. Job descriptions often have a list of requirements so long most applicants pass right over them, even though they are actually qualified, said J.M. Auron, professional IT resume writer, career coach and owner of Quantum Tech Resumes.
"Certainly a man who not only walks on water but can tap dance on water is nice, but you don't need all that," Auron said.
"Companies need to be clearer and companies need ... a job requirement [list] of both the skills they need but also the personality that's going to fit with the company," he said.
Rollings said he has seen some companies begin to change their practices by taking simple steps such as redoing job descriptions and setting career paths with more opportunity for growth. Ninety percent of the changes are people-related, such as mentoring, he said.
While training does take some budget, it is mostly about time and being able to justify the cost, said Jay Pultz, vice president at Gartner. While many companies already provide formal training, it tends to be heavily technically focused, such as certifications, Pultz said. It doesn't have to be in-depth business tactics, he said. Companies can start by just teaching their employees about their business and its goals.
"Surprisingly, a lot of companies don't provide at least basic training into what is the business all about, what drives the business, how do we know if were doing good, how the business is doing," Pultz said.
In the end, it's about really taking the time to learn what motivates your employees and helping create an environment that gives them fulfillment, Rollings said.
"In order to [change], we're not talking about being a better Java programmer, what we're talking about business skills like doing more collaboration, sharing, participation, innovation, creativity, engaging your IT peers," Rollings said.
Companies have to create the opportunities for employees to experience and develop the skills they need as consultants to add business value to their work, Rollings said. That means training and support from upper management.
"Once you learn different languages, picking up another tech language isn't that difficult, especially if a firm is helping you to learn it. But understanding those practices that really drive in good solution approaches, that whole delivery practice, that's really hard to find, harder to develop in somebody. They have to do it experientially, essentially," said Rollings.
For those employees and businesses that already have these skills or are willing to develop them, it's a great way to distinguish themselves in an increasingly competitive marketplace, Rollings said.
"If you're an IT professional and ... you feel that you have these skills or can develop these nontechnical skills, that you're a participative player, you're passionate about what you do, you have to look at this as a gold mine," Rolling said. "This is a great opportunity."
PUBLISHED NOV. 4, 2013