4 Ways Your Company Is Contributing to the IT Skills Gap

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As the adage says, if you aren't part of the solution, you're part of the problem -- and so it goes with IT organizations that talk about the skills gap but do nothing to help themselves.

If you’re an IT or HR manager, you already know there's a major disconnect between the skills, knowledge and experience your organization needs and the availability of those skills in the current talent pool.

In fact, a recent survey of 37,000 global employers performed by staffing firm Manpower reported that 36 percent say they're having trouble filling available positions. Of those respondents, 35 percent cite a lack of hard skills or “technical competencies” as the reason, while 25 percent cite a lack of experience and 19 percent say a lack of soft skills makes it difficult to fill available roles.

Is There Really a Skills Gap?

Peter Cappelli, professor of management at The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, has researched the skills gap question and says that it's not so much of a gap, but more of a skills-mismatch issue, and one that can be addressed if employers take a hard look at their recruiting, hiring and retention practices to make sure they're not part of the problem.

[ Related: Is the Technology Skills Gap Fact or Fiction? ]

He expressed these ideas earlier this year in a column for the Center for Economic Policy Research (CEPR). According to Capelli, virtually all the evidence used to support the skills gap idea comes from employers, either via anecdotes, proprietary surveys from consulting firms or industry associations.

In other words, these don’t provide enough hard, objective data to accurately pinpoint where the problem areas actually lie. "The surveys report that employers have difficulty hiring but do not give a definition as to what ‘difficulty’ means nor ask why. My review of all these reports finds that many of them actually report contradictory evidence; a surprisingly large percentage of employers say that the difficulty they have stems from not paying enough, not providing training and not being able to anticipate their skill needs," says Cappelli.

[Related: How to Close the Technology Skills Gap ]

If you are in search of tech talent and you find yourself doing these four things, you may be your own worst enemy.

Trying to Find the Perfect Match

"Say you want to go out for dinner. If you are looking for a three-star Mediterranean restaurant that serves excellent baklava and also has an area for al fresco dining, well, your options are going to be much more limited than if you said, 'I want an upscale restaurant with great food,'" says Tom Leung, CEO and founder of anonymous career matchmaking service Poachable.

That metaphor is also relevant when looking for talent in IT and engineering. Widening your search parameters can help you find the diamond in the rough.

“IT has a very deep taxonomy, but it can create a false sense of scarcity. Do you want to widen your net to find great candidates with skills that will translate? Or do you spend months, thousands of dollars and lose productivity trying to find that 'Cinderella' candidate for whom the glass slipper fits perfectly?" Leung says. In many cases, hiring companies fail to see the costs of waiting, and won't consider excellent candidates who they could mold to fit the position.

[Related: IT Skills Gap Is Really an Education Gap ]

From Leung’s perspective, it's a matter of taking the long view and deciding where to invest. "It might take you a year to find that 'perfect' person, and then, once you do, you're probably going to get into a bidding war for them. If they're that good, you can be sure they'll have other offers. Or, you could find a younger, less experienced person who's hungry and eager to learn, train them and mold them to be the kind of employee you want in just a few months. Where do you want to put your money? ," say Leung.

Failing to Focus on Education and Training

Most employers are seeking to get the skills they need through hiring, and a significant part of those skills appears to come from work experience, according to Cappelli. This is even more so as opportunities for training and apprenticeships have dried up over the last few decades.

"Credible evidence on employer-provided training in the U.S. is remarkably hard to come by, especially recently. The data we do have suggests that in 1979, young workers received on average about 2.5 weeks of training per year. By 1991, Census data found only 17 percent of all employees reporting that they received any formal training that year. Several surveys of employers around 1995 indicate that somewhere between 42 and 90 percent of employers offered some training (the lower number indicating more programmatic training) with the amount of training an individual received per year averaging just under 11 hours," says Cappelli revealing data accumulated for a forthcoming paper written for the Industry and Labor Relations Review (ILR Review).

The above data is now almost 20-years-old, and there is little new information from government sources. “In 2011, Accenture surveyed U.S. employees and found that only 21 percent had received any employer-provided formal training in the past five years. To be clear, that means almost 80 percent had no training in five years, and no doubt many of those had no training in the years before that, either," says Cappelli.

Formal internal training has been on the decline. "In the past, there used to be a lot of on-the-job training opportunities, but those have dried up significantly as companies try and cut budgets," says Sunil Sani, co-founder of recruiting and staffing firm CareerGlider.

Employers are expecting today’s IT professional to take up the slack. "Nowadays, companies are expecting employees to join the workforce with those skills already in place without having any infrastructure in place to train for the skills they need, but that's just not happening," says Sani.

While independent programming boot camps and e-learning providers are helping candidates help themselves gain valuable tech skills employers should consider investing in internal education programs and courses to foster talent and grow it from within.

"You need to be investing in educating and growing the talent you've got – that will pay off for you down the road, instead of putting all your eggs into the hiring basket," says Sani.

For more information on building a culture of learning read, How to Build a Culture of Learning (and Why You Need to)

Not Paying Enough to Compete

Cappelli's research also uncovered an interesting trend. In the Manpower survey, for example, when asked what was driving the shortfall of applicants for available jobs, almost 20 percent of respondents say that the job seekers were not willing to accept positions at the rate of pay being offered, yet only five percent report that they were planning to raise pay in order to deal with difficulties in hiring.

"It's not 2008 anymore. Businesses have to wake up and realize if they want to get talent with these in-demand, hot skills, they're going to have to pay the market rate, which has increased," says Leung. In Silicon Valley, the Pacific Northwest and other tech-heavy cities, software engineers and developers are demanding top dollar – and they're getting it because smart, innovative companies understand the need to pay a premium for these skills. "If you're not willing to pony up, you're going to lose out," says Leung.

Exacerbating the Problem Through Outsourcing and H1B

The demands from companies to hire talent using H1-B visa quotas are just exacerbating the skills mismatch problem, according to CareerGlider's Sani.

It’s great you’ve got someone there to do the job and solve the short-term problem but what then? "One of the issues is bringing in external talent that can get a warm body in a seat, but then you're not able to promote, you're not able to grow that talent – it's a temporary fix. Why not invest in training and education for the talent you've got here at home instead?,” says Sani.

Organizations that go this route aren’t helping fix the skills gap problem if they're not looking internally at how they can grow their own much-needed talent skills.

Look Within to Bridge the IT Skills Gap

If your business is struggling to fill open positions, it's tempting to lay blame at the feet of candidates, or to assume that the “invisible hand of the market” is responsible. However many times those excuses don't hold up under close scrutiny. If you want to attract and retain great talent, it's up to you to take the first steps.

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