by Helen Beckett

Supplying demand: sorting the IT skills shortage

Sep 27, 20126 mins
CareersIT Leadership

Four in five CIOs find it a challenge to recruit skilled IT professionals, according to the latest Professional Hiring Index from US agency Robert Half, while UK firm Hays named candidates with knowledge of Java, .NET and C++, as the most coveted in a recent survey.

Both agencies blame offshoring for the dearth of computer science graduates and say the latest trend to develop onshore means there is also a shortage of programming skills.

Worryingly, however, many IT chiefs are not tuned into the skills shortage, possibly because the problem is currently masked by a poor economy.

“CIOs should be bothered: the truth is, not a lot are,” reckons David Chan, former CIO and now director of Centre for Information Leadership at London’s City University.

Some attribute CIOs’ lack of interest to their non-people-people stereotype, but a bigger problem may be that IT chiefs are typically focused on a two-to-three year plan and their tenure is often for a similar period; recruitment and retention require a longer-term strategy.

These negatives are compounded by the fact that there is still no mandatory system of professional practice to support IT professionals once they embark on a career.

Compare this state of affairs with law, accountancy or engineering, and IT professionals’ in-role education starts to look quite sketchy.

The options for the CIO are either to build an attractive employment proposition or to badger the CFO for a bigger budget.

“Those who can afford it pay top dollar,” says Chan, which means that banking and financial services still cream off the best talent.

This leaves other sectors relatively impoverished, especially the ones that compete for the same technical skills as banking such as the gaming industry.

Prêt-à-travailler Efforts by the last government to plug IT skills shortages focused on producing work-ready graduates by encouraging industry and academia to work together.

The IT national skills academy, e-skills UK, designed the Information Technology Masters for Business (ITMB) degree together with industry partners.

“The ITMB is unique because the course content is created and monitored by IT employers”, confirms Colin Bannister, CTO of technical sales for of CA Technologies, one of the degree’s industry sponsors.

“As IT becomes more relevant to the business, we are constantly driving our IT team to become more professional in the way that it delivers services.”

Bob Clift, head of the ITMB programme at e-skills, confirms that the degree course is regularly retuned in order to meet changing business requirements.

He cites the recent addition of students learning how to roll out a business system project in a customer-friendly way and consistent with the business needs.

The same approach of consultation with industry to meet IT needs is arguably sharpened when the IT graduate becomes a product.

FDM Group is an IT services company that hothouses graduates and places them with its 200-plus clients, primarily in banking and media.

Despite ongoing challenging trading conditions, FDM recruited 1000 graduates in 2011 in order to keep up with demand from blue chip customers.

FDM academies in London, New York, Hong Kong, Germany and Luxembourg train hand-picked graduates to be software testers, business analysts, support analysts and .Net and Java developers.

After a three- to six-month crash course, supervised training continues on a client site.

Clients who participate are effectively outsourcing graduate training, cutting out risk and cost but gaining the option to cherry pick at the end of the induction.

As a result, some businesses accept that entry-level skills are no longer widely available.

“There are very few entry-level skills to pick from. Most of these have been outsourced or are offshore”, says Meri Williams, information decision solutions manager at Procter & Gamble.

That leaves firms like P&G with the challenge of selecting recruits who can assume more responsibility straight away.

“Our job is all about turning IT capability into business benefit. So we look for folk who have an affinity for both, and hire at manager level,” says Williams.

Attitude test P&G looks for problem-solving ability in IT candidates and assesses for a particular set of behaviours.

“We’re more interested in aptitude than knowledge,” confirms Williams. “I’ve never needed to write a line of code for P&G, but I know enough to manage third-party projects.”

Another concern is the inability to nurture a pipeline of specialist knowledge in critical disciplines. John Colley, managing director EMEA of security consultancy (ISC)2, laments the lack of thought given by in-house graduate programmes to developing deep, technical skills.

“When I was the head of information security at a bank, we hired a couple of graduates as security apprentices but it was a fight to not have them rotated around functions. What they needed was exposure to security functions such as business continuity and threat management,” Colley recalls.

A bachelor degree in information security, would go some way to remedying the deficit, he believes.

But the biggest beef among IT recruiters still appears to be that graduates for roles lack the necessary business and interpersonal skills.

FDM trainees are put through a business as well as a technical boot camp to prepare them for the wider world.

“They come to work dressed in a suit or business attire, and they behave as if they were in a business environment”, says Sheila Flavell, chief operating officer for FDM.

“If some graduates were to go straight into banking, they would come a cropper,” she says.

“The intensive use of the internet and social media may produce some behaviour not appropriate for the business world”, she says.

Positive behaviour differences are flagged up by Chan in his study Responding to the Millennial Generation.

“Qualitatively, kids who have grown up with the internet are different. They are really comfortable with technology and they work things out collaboratively.”

The flip side is that they don’t do things by the book, and have no brand loyalty, which creates a conflict in expectations between employer and recruit.

The challenge for the CIO, should he choose to accept it, is to work out an offering that makes his IT department highly attractive compared to competitors. Smart tech outfits have long been working out ways to attract and retain talent.

Google lets its software engineers do their own thing one day a week.  Highly talented staff are given some creative slack, while Google benefits by getting first bite of the cherry at any commercially interesting proposition.

The alternative to thinking about the IT employment proposition now is to face another war on talent. And, with the shortfall estimated at 140,000 skilled jobs a year, that may be too pricey for the CIO to ignore.