by Bart Perkins

9 ways to address the IT retirement boom

Mar 14, 201911 mins
Artificial IntelligenceBPM SystemsCareers

Demographic trends are placing pressure on long-term outlooks for IT staffing. Here's how to address an increasing talent shortage before it becomes an existential crisis for IT.

one red paper boat breaking from a formation of white boats
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The tech talent crunch is real, as enterprises around the world find qualified staff harder to attract . Worse, working age populations are shrinking in forty countries, including France, Russia, China, and Spain. In America, Baby Boomer retirements, low immigration rates, and record-setting low unemployment are making it difficult for many enterprises to attract and keep qualified staff — especially for roles in which legacy skills are in high demand.

America’s falling birth rate after the 2008 recession doesn’t bode well for the long-term impact of pending retirements. Companies need to recognize that without a more creative approach to workforce needs, increased demand will outstrip the supply of available IT staff supply for the foreseeable future. Unfortunately, the problem is not obvious until executive management analyzes demographic trends and the resulting staffing implications. If your enterprise has not begun to prepare, help the executive team understand the problem and develop an enterprise wide roadmap.

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Following are nine ways organizations can begin to address this issue before an increasing talent shortage becomes an existential crisis for your IT. Make sure IT has its own plan and don’t delay making any required changes. There’s really no downside. Even if a large number of additional people joined the labor force, you will have a very efficient and highly effective IT organization for them to join.

Exploit self-service

Google Duplex, Siri, and Alexa are improving their ability to schedule meetings, arrange travel, and undertake other administrative tasks. These and other tools will expand self-service for the service desk, training, equipment update/repair, and other services.

Installation, diagnosis, and repair tools need to become easier to use and more reliable. More support will be delivered through chat and email with little opportunity to speak to a real human. To reduce customer frustration, service bots will need increased “judgment” and “empathy” as well as the authority to grant exceptions to rules and do the right thing. No matter how well the bots function or how responsive chat is, self-service can be frustrating and some individuals will insist on speaking with a person. Wait times may increase for most, but important customers should be provided concierge service allowing them rapid access to help. 

Automation throughout the IT stack is also crucial. While there are fears that increased reliance on artificial intelligence will result in fewer jobs, companies may need to lean on automation and artificial intelligence strategies to evolve their workforce needs as workforce populations change.

Expand outsourcing

Outsourcing IT functions (both within the home country and abroad) has grown significantly since the mid-1990s, primarily to reduce cost. A smaller available workforce will force companies to consider outsourcing because they cannot fill open positions. However, outsourcers will face their own staffing challenges and will respond by standardizing their service offerings. Many enterprises, particularly smaller ones, will be forced to redesign their business processes around the offerings available.

Staffing challenges will also accelerate cloud migration. Large enterprises with outdated infrastructures will be forced to evaluate cloud adoption even if that migration requires a large balance sheet write-off. Enterprises that run custom software in cloud servers will need to consider migrating to SaaS solutions to reduce support requirements for custom code.

Expand your hiring approach

Widen hiring to include those underrepresented in tech today, such as women, people of color, older individuals, immigrants, and the handicapped. According to research published in the Harvard Business Review, workforce diversity is good business. The authors considered diversity from two perspectives: inherent and acquired. Inherent diversity includes gender, ethnicity, socio-economic background and other traits that individuals have at birth. Acquired diversity comes from an appreciation of cultural differences resulting from working with different nationalities, ethnicities, and genders. Companies with leaders exhibiting both types of diversity are more creative and more profitable than less diverse companies.

Older workers usually have a better understanding of organizational dynamics than younger workers and are able to identify informal opinion leaders quickly. Experience has shown them that logical, rational analysis alone is rarely enough to gain consensus when faced with competing perspectives. Maturity and negotiation skills are required to fashion a compromise.

Unfortunately, ageism is a major problem for Boomers and Gen-Xers attempting to work in technology. Although few hiring managers will admit it, many avoid older workers because of their higher cost. In addition, some younger managers believe older people are not technologically current. While some may not be up-to-date on the latest technologies, most possess at least conceptual knowledge of similar products and can adapt fairly quickly. They also provide valuable perspective and experience. And if your organization has some of the 220 billion lines of COBOL still running, older employees are more likely to have the expertise you require.

Increasingly, IT departments hire individuals with little or no IT background, especially as business analysts, business relationship managers, and other positions requiring multi-faceted skills and business acumen. While some IT training may be needed, these individuals bring skills that employees who have worked exclusively in IT often lack. In addition, individuals who have a long history with the organization bring enterprise knowledge and a valuable informal network.

People with disabilities can be excellent hires. Individuals with Asperger’s, for example, are capable of intense focus for long periods of time on highly structured activities. Programming can be an ideal job for blind and visually impaired people, according to Larry Skutchan, the blind department head of programming for the American Printing House for the Blind (APH). Screen readers, speech synthesizers, and refreshable braille displays allow blind programmers to use the same design and debugging skills used by sighted programmers. They hear and feel the code rather than reading it. Microsoft is investing in this population. At the 2019 British Educational Training and Technology Show, Microsoft and APH announced a partnership in which APH will distribute Microsoft’s Code Jumper that teaches blind and visually impaired children to code. Today, roughly 1 percent of programmers worldwide are blind or visually impaired. Expect that number to increase as a result of this joint venture.

In addition to being excellent programmers, women make valuable contributions to team dynamics. Women are more empathetic than men and promote group cohesiveness. They can also connect with individuals (internal or external) who block progress. These connections can help break impasses and create a way forward. Unfortunately, women often feel their skills are undervalued, their opportunities for advancement are limited, and few have a mentor or advocate. While women accounted for 36 percent of U.S. IT staff in 1991, the numbers fell to only 26 percent in 2014.

Many colleges and universities are adapting their admission policies to favor “first generation” students who are the first person in their immediate family to attend college. These policies provide enterprises increased opportunities to hire graduates across more ethnicities and socio-economic groups.

Evolve your approach to compensation and benefits

In addition to increasing the compensation budget, companies should create more flexible packages. Compensation specialists can help maintain parity across staff while adjusting salary, bonus, long-term compensation, and benefits to tailor packages to individuals’ needs.

According to HR Directors, younger people (or those carrying large debt) often prefer cash over stock options or other forms of long-term compensation. Individuals with young families, aging parents, or family members in crisis often value schedule flexibility or remote work options. Women and men considering families seek maternity and paternity leave, while new mothers appreciate lactation rooms and nurseries. Many older people value part time work, jobs that allow them to mentor younger people, and office furniture that accommodates bad backs or other physical ailments.

Some enterprises have begun to offer specialized perks for their employees. Reebok offers free fitness classes and many companies now offer gym facilities or memberships. Spotify offers free fertility assistance, including egg freezing. The Gates Foundation offers 26 weeks of parental leave and $20,000. Goldman Sachs has covered the cost of gender reassignment surgery since 2008.

Create a supportive culture

Multi-dimensional sensitivity is required to manage a diverse workforce. In addition to racial, gender, and age discrimination, training needs to address discrimination based on disability, genetic information, pregnancy, religion, national origin, sexual preference, and political orientation. While the EEOC prohibits discrimination based on most of these, any intolerance makes recruiting more difficult. Dice reports that a pattern of workplace discrimination reduces staff referrals by 25 percent.

Millennials will account for nearly half the U.S. workforce by 2020. They value social responsibility, diversity, and inclusion. They embrace cultures with a compelling mission and opportunities to learn and grow. They want administrative tasks minimized, micromanagement discouraged, useless meetings eliminated, and failures to be examined for lessons that can be learned.

Focus on practical solutions

Many IT organizations have adopted a wide variety of industry standards or best practices. Most are extremely worthwhile, improve internal IT performance, and assure executives that the IT organization is well managed. But standards and best practices are sometimes mistakenly adopted, particularly by small enterprises that implement standards designed with very large enterprises in mind. As the labor market becomes more difficult, the emphasis will shift from best practices to practical practices. Bureaucratic standards or practices will be avoided in favor of those where the benefit clearly outweighs the cost.

Hire talent when it is available

Talent is difficult to find, especially if your department requires highly specialized skills. Hire talented individuals when you find them, even without a specific job in mind. While this can be very difficult or even impossible in organizations with tight head count or budget controls, it is worthwhile to ask for an exception from accounting or HR when a talented individual with valuable skills is available.

Increase training

Technology changes so rapidly that skills need to be refreshed approximately every three years. If you have not created your own training program, consider doing so. IBM, AT&T, and other technology companies are expanding their internal training programs. Also evaluate bringing training programs in-house; it may be more efficient and cost effective than paying for generalized online courses or training programs requiring significant travel expenses.

Emphasize retention

It is time consuming and expensive to replace highly skilled employees. A supportive culture and an effective compensation program are the foundation of a good employee retention program. Make sure other parts are solid as well. Survey your employees to ensure your retention program is targeted appropriately.

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