How to conquer recruiting, retention and IT skills challenges

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Experts in the technology industry look at the year ahead and what it holds for recruitment and retention. They also identify what tech skills will top the charts.

IT has become ingrained in every part of business strategy, so it's not surprising that demand for tech talent is at an all-time high, forcing organizations to be creative when competing for talent. We're already through the month of January and employers are looking down the barrel of a competitive 2016. To help tech hiring managers and CIOs plan for a tumultuous year, several industry experts offer their advice.

"IT has always been at the heart of product offerings and growth, but today IT is impacting all types of industries in significant ways. New products and solutions will continue to demand strong IT talent. Diverse skills are required, and many IT job skills are relatively new," says Gregory Simpson, senior vice president and CTO at Synchrony Financial.

Unemployment remains low for IT pros

Unemployment in the tech industry has been well below the national average of 5 percent, hovering at around 3 percent, which has caused trouble for many employers looking to increase, replace and retain their most precious commodity, their IT talent. Skills gaps exist in areas like big data and analytics, security, developers familiar with legacy tech and more.

Making matters worse for employers is the reality that in a job market swelling with opportunities, workers feel more safe to explore other options. "Tech professionals are in high demand, particularly in roles requiring software and Web development skills," says Kathy Harris, managing director of Harris Allied, "This demand is giving tech employees a strong upper hand in terms of compensation expectations."

[ Related Story: How to win the war for IT talent ]

Enterprise use of consultants will continue to grow

The number of IT pros freelancing is expected to increase. In fact, recent data from Upwork's 2nd annual "Freelancing in America" study found that more people are freelancing by choice. According to the study, one in three Americans are freelancing at least part-time.

In an effort to stay on track and reduce the effects of the skills gaps in various areas within tech, like security and analytics, employers will continue to look for freelance workers. "IT will continue to be a jobseekers market and skilled talent will still have plentiful options in most areas in the industry," says John Reed, senior executive director at Robert Half Technology.

Disruptive technology groups within IT grow in 2016

More organizations are cozying up to the idea of using a bimodal approach to IT, where a group or department focuses mainly on innovation or product design, according to David Foote, founder and chief analyst with Foote Partners, "Often these digital ecosystems did not exist prior at many companies so these groups often have a distinctly entrepreneurial startup sort of mentality. This is perfect for attracting the knowledge and skills of younger workers who can bring native understanding of user experience/user interface knowledge. Smart companies will use these new development groups to incent and attract younger workers," he says.

[ Related Story: How bimodal IT is helping companies hire and retain workers ]

An increase in corporate branding to help reach prospective employees

With the market experiencing low unemployment rates, IT workers will have more opportunities. Companies will have to improve how they represent themselves to potential employees and that means getting better at social media as well as demonstrating why it's great to work in their organization and projecting outward what their corporate culture is all about. "As a part of their recruitment strategy, employers must know how to sell themselves to employers, making sure that they highlight why they are an attractive workplace and how they will appeal to potential employees," says Reed.

Ed Nathanson, founder of Red Pill Talent, LLC., agrees noting, "People have more than just options today, they have information. Employment branding is absolutely key to companies looking to attract talent. There are studies that show that employer brand (what it is like to work at the company) is more likely to drive job consideration than what the company actually does. If you look at the companies that are talent magnets, they all are making a concerted effort to show and market what it is like to work at the company."

Increased internal education opportunities for tech workers

"An effective training program is a pillar of effective talent management," says Rohinee Mohindroo, former CIO and CTO for the Targeting Technology Advisory.

Companies waste resources continually searching for new talent, according to experts, when they should be looking within their organization to find and train talent. Companies that do this correctly will have a competitive advantage in the job market. "With the demand for tech skills at an all-time high, companies will need to invest more in training and development of their existing employee base rather than continually seeking out external hires for in demand skills. Companies will start to see the benefits of investing in their people and their skills development and realize that the costs are far less than continuing to hunt for external talent in the highly completive market with the accompanying high market salaries," says Nathanson. As the need for specific professionals continues to outpace the number of available tech professionals, organizations will have to increase their internal training programs in order to build talent internally.

Retention becomes top priority

Employee turnover is costly and time-consuming. Corporations had a little leeway in the down economy but 2016 will be a different story, according to experts. Retention will be top of mind for CIOs and tech leaders as the talent wars continue. In fact, finding talent in 2016 won't be as difficult as retaining your IT workforce, according to Mohindroo, "I am less concerned about sourcing the talent and more concerned about retaining it. Retention will need to be a strategic investment area for organizations [in 2016]."

"Companies are starting to learn that retention is a huge issue. There will always be the allure of greener pastures, but I do believe companies are starting to put a greater emphasis on doing what they can to keep their valued employees," says Nathanson.

More emphasis on workplace culture

To attract and retain talent, employers need to put an emphasis on building a culture that helps workers thrive. Do this right and your own workers will spread the word. "Transparency and honesty is key -- as is enabling your current employees to be part of this process. People expect the company to say great things about working there, but when your actual employees say it, it carries far more credibility and impact," says Nathanson.

More focus on recruitment strategies

Some organizations are partnering with universities and colleges to build a talent pipeline. Others are warming up to the idea of hiring previous employees who left in good standing and building an alumni of former workers. Some are looking outside their local talent pools and considering remote employees for the first time. Flexible work options have become almost mainstream for tech talent.

This trend will continue as organizations look for ways to stand apart from other workplaces. "Flexible options have almost become a standard benefit in many workplaces and for technology professionals. This trend is partly driven by the requests of technology professionals, but also as a differentiator from employers who wanted to offer unique benefits as part of a recruitment strategy. Employees who have these options feel they can manage their careers and personal lives effectively. A sense of freedom and autonomy is beneficial for both the employees and employers, therefore is an effective recruitment tool as well as a work-life benefit," says Reed.

Working with a multigenerational workforce

Generation Z is slowly infiltrating the workforce, millennials are moving into leadership positions boomers are still hanging in there. This can make things complicated when trying to hire and retain workers who could conceivably need and want very different things from employers. "As teams continue to shift and grow, managing a multigenerational workplace must be top of mind for team leaders. Each generation from Boomers to Gen Z has a different ideal professional situation, and employers will need to customize benefits and offers to keep employees happy," says Reed.

Experts predict the most in-Demand tech skills for 2016

We asked each of the experts interviewed what they thought would be the most in-demand skills for 2016. Here is what they had to say.

  • "Desktop support, network and database management professionals will continue to be in demand and hard to find for technology team leaders. Tech team leaders will have to continue to monitor salary trends and offer competitive compensation and benefits packages," John Reed says.
  • Cybersecurity and information security seems to be top of mind for most IT leaders these days with the countless barrage of news worthy cyberattacks. David Foote sees this as the year IT leaders take security seriously. "In 2015 many of our experts call out security and secure application development skills as the most difficult to source. Cybersecurity and secure software developers have been the absolute hardest [to recruit in 2015]. They will remain the most difficult to source in 2016," he says.
  • Big data and analytics skills is another area where employers are focusing in 2016, according to Foote, "Data Scientist a job that is, largely undefined or being used for multiple definitions, will see gains in 2016.
  • Analytics architects or what Foote refers to as, "the new breed of data architects," is another area that will see growth in the coming year, he says.
  • Developers are always in high demand and 2016 will be no different. According to Foote, front-end Web developers with skills in Node.js, Angular, MongoDB and JSON will be the hottest in 2016. These professionals will be building dynamic online experiences using a variety of languages and development platforms.
  • It seems that every company has an app these days but without the right user experience and consumer experience, professionals won't use your app no matter how cool it is. Expect IT pros with these skills to be in demand in the coming year, according to our experts.
  • Architecture is something organizations don't realize they need until it's too late and with older tech workers aging out of the job market, finding individuals with the skills and experience to understand and develop the "big picture thinking" necessary to make it all work is going to get tougher.
  • Project management skills are needed by virtually every company. On-time initiatives, projects and product launches all happen through sound thorough project management and organizations.
  • Methodologies like ITIL along with the use of frameworks like agile will continue to be adopted by organizations looking to shorten time to launch, as well as create better software and products. "Companies will need to change how we work and move more towards agile, self-organized development. Breaking down traditional organizational hierarchy will be critical. At Synchrony Financial, we have introduced Innovation Stations, cross-functional, collaborative teams where we apply the latest thinking and agile methodology to drive faster delivery of innovative solutions in a fun and flexible way," says Simpson.
  • Cloud adoption is soaring and is expected to continue to grow in coming year. In fact, within the government sector, Bitglass reported a spike of more than 300 percent in the proportion of agencies that have moved to the cloud. That means people with the skills to migrate, connect and maintain cloud systems will increase as well.

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