E-BUSINESS SPECIAL REPORT

Probing the IT Skills Shortage

Many companies have scaled back staffing levels and instituted mandatory hiring freezes in the past few years, but these cutbacks have exacted a steep cost. In many cases, businesses now are facing skill gaps that hurt their IT departments. Even worse — and somewhat surprisingly, considering the number of IT workers seeking jobs — there is sometimes a shortage of qualified individuals to fill the gaps, even when money is budgeted for hiring.

For those seeking work in this tough economy, however, a skills shortage in a specific area may be good news. Lack of overall expertise means decreased competition for those who do have the required skills.

So, what skills are in demand — and are hundreds of thousands of IT jobs truly going unfilled?

Tech Needs, New and Old

Wherever there is freshly developed technology, there is a need to run it. In today’s high-tech world, technological advances can lead a situation in which not enough IT workers are capable of tackling issues and challenges related to those new developments. For example, security and wireless are two fields experiencing skills shortages at present.

Another short-staffed field, paradoxically, is management of older systems. Steven Lane, research vice president at Aberdeen Group, told the E-Commerce Times that this shortage has occurred because some older programmers have retired in recent years, leaving behind a skills void.

“With legacy systems, you really do have a different skill set,” he said. “If nothing else, the people who know about them can go in there and dissect them.”

Although many companies are phasing out legacy systems, he added, they still need employees skilled in mainframe management and Cobol to make the transition easier.

“People are realizing there’s a heck of a lot of institutional knowledge and competitive advantage that were built into those legacy applications,” Lane said, “and they don’t want to throw those away.”

Manage This

Gene Salois, vice president of certification at CompTIA, told the E-Commerce Times that he has noticed a shortage of skilled employees in project management as well.

“It continues to be an area that is short on qualified and experienced employees,” he said. “This has much to do with the fact that there’s a significant difference between managing traditional projects and IT projects.”

Whereas standard projects draw on business management skills, Salois explained, an IT project must incorporate complex technology directives as well as budgeting. As many companies have found out, this is quite a trick to pull off.

“IT projects involve more communication, customer service, problem solving and changing the business process,” he noted. “These have not traditionally been covered in the broad project management education.”

Say ‘Aaah’

Sometimes a lack of skilled employees is determined not by area of expertise, but by industry.

For example, Yankee Group analyst Carrie Lewis told the E-Commerce Times that recent changes in the healthcare sector have left some holes in IT departments. Specifically, the HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) mandates that the healthcare industry must become technology-driven — but not all healthcare companies have the necessary personnel to make this transition.

“They’re buying solutions that aren’t always tailored to the sector,” Lewis said. “In the past, they’ve been more finicky about purchasing, but they can’t be now because they have to get up to speed quickly.”

The result is that healthcare companies are trying to implement technology, but they do not always have employees who are skilled enough to tackle the challenge.

Qualified Applicants Only

As companies aim to fill open IT jobs, candidates can gird themselves for battle by doing what they always have done in competitive job situations: Get more training in sought-after areas.

In healthcare, the need to hire more savvy IT personnel has become so pronounced that one industry organization, the American Health Information Management Association (AHIMA), has developed certifications. These certifications prove expertise in both medical know-how and IT skills — a crucial combination in any healthcare firm. The association also gives its blessing to several two- and four-year programs that offer degrees in healthcare-focused technology.

As AHIMA director Harry Rhodes told the E-Commerce Times: “There’s definitely a need for people that can walk on both sides of the street. I notice that the people who get the skills in this field don’t have much trouble getting a job.”

Other certifications, like an MCSE or those sponsored by CompTIA, also can increase a candidate’s chances of rising to the top of the heap.

“Demonstrating knowledge through the certification process can make an employee more valuable because they’re more reliable, efficient, ethical and productive,” Salois said.

Getting Real

Beyond seeking qualification through certifications, job seekers who want to fillthe skills gap may need more than education to get a position. They may need a good old reality check.

“The shortages have a lot to do with wages,” said John Challenger, CEO of Challenger, Gray & Christmas. He told the E-Commerce Times that many high-tech workers have wage expectations that are left over from the dot-com boom. When they lose a job and begin to hunt for another, they tend to expect a salary that is simply unrealistic in today’s market.

“Expectations like these have kept many people out of the marketplace, which is not what you want to do,” he said.

Instead, Challenger suggests, the skills gap can only be filled by employees who understand that it will pay off in the long run to get a job at a low wage now and gain new skills while seeking a better-paying position elsewhere.

“There aren’t really shortages in some ways,” he noted. “You have a huge global workforce, and there’s a surplus of talent. There’s just a shortage of people who are willing to work for the wages that companies are offering right now.”

5 Comments

  • As a consumer, I realize that you get what you pay for. Corporations should also know this and value the experience that out-of-work experienced IT Professionals bring to the table.
    I have supervisory experience and book knowledge. My experience helps me resolve issues quicker and better because I know what has worked in the past and I see the whole picture. The same is true for IT professionals; they have been there and done that in a quick-changing technological environment. They use real-world experience backing their analysis.
    I don’t think that IT professionals have priced themselves out of jobs… I think corporations need to cut costs and are taking a chance on inexperienced IT professionals.
    As a consumer, I will pay the extra bucks for an experienced auto mechanic, roofer, and hairdresser; because I don’t want to deal with the hassle of erroneous work.
    IT professionals work on a salary basis, which means they get paid the same amount regardless of the hours it takes to meet deadlines. Are corporations taking advantage of inexperienced IT workers?

  • Skills shortage because pay demands are too high? That is the most absurd thing I have ever heard of. Any consultant should know better. The fact is that there is such a thing as a law of supply and demand in the labor market as well as anywhere else. If demand in a particular area is high, cost will increase. That is the way a market economy works. When the price for a service or product increases in the market, the supply will increase as people work to fill the demand. If a purchaser is unwilling to purchase a good or service at the market price, then he must be making a decision that the value is not there for him.
    Companies that now find themselves with skill shortages after dumping their IT resources have little sympathy from me. They dug the holes they are in all by themselves.
    Wages have been stagnant and opportunities meager during this recession, and overtime long and hard due to employers taking advantage of lack of mobility. Now with the economy turning it is going to be a very different market. With low levels of new IT graduates coming into the market, and exodus from the IT profession by many experienced professionals, I think we are heading for an IT shortage that is going to make the dot.bomb era look mild by comparison.
    I think that offshore consultancies will become saturated and there will be a shortage of IT capability worldwide.
    The companies that are going to do well are those that retained their key IT staff and treated their employees well during the recession. Those that abused or laid off staff are going to suffer.

  • Let’s see "businesses now are facing skill gaps that hurt their IT departments" but "[t]here’s just a shortage of people who are willing to work for the wages that companies are offering right now."
    There used to be this popular idea called "capitalism" based on the notion of "supply and demand". Maybe it doesn’t apply to professionals who aren’t CEOs? Either that or hurting IT departments don’t hurt businesses sufficiently for them to pay to relieve the pain.
    Another disconnect between IT and the business world: apparently someone can learn about "business" in general – say, by getting an MBA – then go on to work in any sort of business, whether it be one that makes cardboard boxes or software. In IT, however, people are pigeon-holed – you may have telecom people, but you need someone else to do WiFi.
    Most IT people I’ve known would be happy to stay at a company that offers continual training opportunities and allows them to move to new areas. Of course, there’s the problem that a person skilled in a number of areas who’s been with the company for a number of years might expect more money than someone more junior.

  • Good article. Demonstrates the sheer ignorance of business leaders today. I predict the shortage will continue for a long time until business realizes they must change their expectations for what "qualified" means. Capability is a much better way of judging abilities. I am speaking as one of the laid off IT workers with 18 years worth of experience in software. I took all the training courses offered by my company, but in the end it did absolutely no good. Business believes software skills are trivial! This is a very bad mistake. Programming in a particular language is trivial, but gathering requirements and doing the requirements analysis are not skills that can be learned in a classroom, and they are the most critical skills. They are also not trivial by any means. There are many other reasons I could give where business is making a huge mistake by abandoning many of its domestic work-force, but it would be a meaningless gesture for the tiny little brains that seem to reside within the heads of the so-called leaders of the corporate world have demonstrated that they just cannot understand them.

  • Your last line, "There’s just a shortage of people who are willing to work for the wages that companies are offering right now" is quite a telling statement of employers’ expectations.
    I’m having the same trouble. I am looking for a cheap handy man to fix things around the house, do my taxes, and take out the kid’s tonsils. But I find such handy men want too much money.
    wakeup

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