by Mary K. Pratt

IT leaders juggle staffing strategies, post-COVID

Jul 29, 2020
IT LeadershipOutsourcingStaff Management

As project priorities (and IT budgets) shift, CIOs are rethinking how to acquire much needed skills in uncertain times.

Recruitment  >  Hiring compass pointing toward talent
Credit: Thinkstock

Mark Chamberlain, vice president and head of global infrastructure at ADP, continued to recruit new IT workers during the second quarter of 2020, even as the coronavirus pandemic took hold across the globe.

And he expects to hire new workers throughout the rest of the year, too.

In fact, much of his staffing strategy remains on track, despite COVID-19’s disruptions. He’s bringing in new people, hiring them as contractors with the goal of making them full-time employees if they prove to be a good fit. And he’s still using a small pool of supplemental staff to augment his team of 250 workers, with contractors from his vendors making up many within that additional workforce.

The steady state of IT staffing at Chamberlain’s company isn’t an anomaly, but it’s not necessarily universal either.

Enterprise IT staffing strategies are becoming both increasingly complex and tenuous, according to multiple sources.

On the one hand, experts say that the IT job market is relatively solid so far, despite the dramatic unemployment figures from this past spring, with many organizations holding onto their existing technology headcount and even hiring additional full-time workers as projects proceed.

But IT executives, staffing leaders and management consultants also acknowledge that CIO staffing strategies could quickly change, pointing out that the significant uncertainty of this era has made the challenging task of determining the right numbers of workers with the right combination of skills and the ideal configuration — mainly, full-time vs. contractor — even more difficult.

An early July survey of 100 senior executives in IT, security and engineering from Pulse showcases the ongoing uncertainty and the impact it has on staffing strategies: Some 79 percent of responding leaders said their decision to begin hiring again is directly tied to the state of the economy — yet what will happen with the economy through 2020 and into 2021 is far from settled.

“If the economy really truly slows down, and then business slows down, CIOs will not need as many hands to help because their initiatives will also slow down,” says Tom Gimbel, CEO of the recruiting and staffing firm LaSalle Network. “The primary issue I see CIOs facing is purely economic: knowing what initiatives the business can or cannot afford to do and how to recalibrate the staff they have if they need to slim down. As a result, I’m seeing a lot of rolling 60-day plans. There’s a lot of contingency plans.”

A steady state vs. state of flux

Although Chamberlain’s staffing strategy remains steady, it has indeed been adjusted to fit the times.

Chamberlain focused his attention this past spring on supporting his team as they hustled to get nearly 60,000 employees working remotely. (The company had some infrastructure for remote work but needed to reconfigure infrastructure to enable access on such a large scale.)

Following that big push, Chamberlain says he devised more forward-looking plans that include improving the employee collaboration experience and moving more to the cloud — projects that will drive his staffing needs for the remainder of 2020.

“We will probably staff a little differently in those areas, but we’re also hiring for projects that we have in flight, so we’re still recruiting for skills in that space,” he says. He expects it will be a bit tougher to recruit full-time workers for those projects, though. “It’s harder because so many companies need these skills,” he says.

Others likewise see CIOs scrambling to staff up in certain areas related to the post-pandemic project list.

Gimbel, for one, says he has seen an uptick in demand for skills related to remote-work solutions, skills in areas such as security, cloud and collaboration platforms. And he’s seeing more CIOs bringing on contingency staff and temporary workers to handle those immediate needs, particularly on the help desk and break/fix teams as IT departments work to equip and support the burgeoning number of remote workers.

Similarly, Mike Weast, president of IT and engineering at the Addison Group, a recruitment and staffing agency, sees CIOs looking for an influx of temporary staff to help them build and stabilize the infrastructure needed to support widescale remote work.

“You’ll see an influx of temp workers coming on to fill in the holes, to fill in the gaps that have to be addressed right now,” he says. “And those are around a couple of assets. They’re being brought on for connectivity, to make sure everyone has the right laptops.”

Not surprisingly, Weast says the CIOs who had been operating with lean teams are the ones most often hiring those extra workers as they took thin teams and stretched them even further just to get by.

Weast, however, says he doesn’t expect CIOs to need those workers long term.

“Already, that work is starting to come to an end. There’s a greater sense among CIOs of being able to handle the speed and volume of the tickets coming in [requesting IT support]. CIOs now have a good grasp on the amount of work,” he says.

Shifting work, shifting workers

Although IT projects stemming the first wave of pandemic-related work are slowing down, CIOs are moving forward with projects to sustain the new workplace paradigms and thus now need people for those initiatives.

As such, Weast and others see continued demand for contractor workers and supplemental staff to support new solutions aimed at helping organizations navigate the emerging business environment. More specifically, they see demand for workers and vendors who can help set up collaboration platforms, cloud technologies and network solutions.

They also say they expect demand for temporary staff to stay high as CIOs face more uncertainty than they did entering 2020; they explain that many CIOs want the flexibility that using temporary workers offers.

“The IT plans have had to become a lot more flexible,” Weast says, noting that although he isn’t seeing a lot of full-time permanent hires, he’s not seeing massive layoffs either.

But others are seeing a different trend, saying that they see CIOs beginning to shed temporary workers as some projects have been halted.

“The new development isn’t happening as much as before, and we are seeing discretionary work slowing down, so we’re seeing impact on some temporary staff and contractor labor right now,” says Kim Bozzella, a managing director at Protiviti, a management consulting firm, and leader of its Financial Services Industry Technology Consulting practice.

Instead of relying on supplemental teams, Bozzella says more CIOs are adjusting their use of existing full-time employees and accelerating their moves to agile and similar principles to create more flexibility.

“I’m seeing a shift, but it’s not a matter of more or less people. It’s readjusting how to bring teams together,” she says.

In fact, with entire IT departments working remotely, Bozzella says CIOs can now more easily configure teams based on needed skills without considering whether the team members happen to work in the same office.

“There are opportunities here: You can use technology to bring the best people to teams,” she says, adding that that staffing strategy can reduce the need to bring on new talent.

Surveys on the current IT employment picture shed some light on today’s complex staffing trends.

CompTIA, the nonprofit trade association for the global tech industry, analyzed U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics figures and found that the two components of the IT employment market (industry and occupation) showed signs of improvement this summer.

CompTIA found that “IT jobs across all industry sectors of the economy increased by an estimated 227,000 positions” and further noted that tech occupation employment increased in five of the six months in the first half of 2020.

“The latest employment data for tech was generally positive, with continuing signs of momentum,” Tim Herbert, executive vice president for research and market intelligence at CompTIA, says in releasing the organization’s analysis. “While uncertainty is still a major concern, the forward-looking employer job posting figures suggest hiring will accelerate in areas such as software development, IT support, cloud infrastructure, cybersecurity, and certain emerging tech fields.”

CompTIA further found that there were approximately 263,000 job postings for tech talent in June, up by 42,000 postings over the previous month. It also found that “the top five occupation categories experienced positive gains, led by software and application developers (82,800 job postings). Other in-demand occupations included IT support specialists (22,000), systems engineers and architects (20,700), systems analysts (16,900) and IT project managers (14,600).”

The unemployment rate for IT occupations stood at 4.3 percent for June, compared to the national rate of 11.1 percent, according to CompTIA.

Meanwhile, the Pulse survey of IT, security and engineering leaders found that 82 percent plan on hiring before the end of 2020. Furthermore, the survey found that 31 percent had moved forward with hiring plans during the second quarter and another 32 percent planned to hire during the third quarter. Some 19 percent plan to resume hiring during Q4, with only 18 percent saying that they don’t plan to resume hiring until 2021.

Additionally, the Pulse survey found that 29 percent of responding executives were more open to hiring foreign/remote workers due to COVID-19. Some 41 percent said they were already hiring such workers, while the remaining 30 percent responded no to the question.

Gimbel says he, too, is seeing a similar trend in IT hiring.

“IT has always been a leader of virtual workforce and workforce flexibility but the interesting thing now is we’re seeing CIOs being more open to all positions within IT being remote,” he says. “Now that [many companies] are not working on site, CIOs have the flexibility for positions that were local to be national, so they actually have access to a greater talent pool today.”

CIOs may even be willing to expand internationally, he adds, as recently announced limits in the federal H-1B visa program that allow foreigner nationals into the United States could lead IT leaders to offshore projects to workers who otherwise would have moved to the United States.

“The companies that are already offshoring business may then just move more work and higher-level positions offshore. They’ll have the same number of people doing the work, it will just be done over there versus doing it here,” Gimbel says.

But even that plan is tenuous, with experts saying that a sudden slide in the economy — and a corresponding drop in C-suite funding for new tech-driven initiatives — could quickly sideline CIO staffing strategies, forcing them to move instead into hiring freezes or even potential layoffs.

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