by Beth Stackpole

How to build a next-generation IT workforce

Jul 01, 2019
IT LeadershipIT SkillsStaff Management

With baby boomers on the way out and new generations ready to fill the void, companies are cross-pollinating expertise to fill the talent gap and modernize IT.

next generation it workers staff talent digital transformation
Credit: Metamorworks / Getty Images

Fresh out of Clemson University in 2016 with a degree in computer science, Kirsten Erich accepted an IT position at TIAA, but it wasn’t just any developer role. Erich was among a few dozen newly-minted grads recruited as a TIAA Technical Associate (TA), a rotation program designed to maximize the potential of new hires while ensuring the financial services firm cultivates the right mix of talent to build a next-generation IT workforce.

As part of the program, Erich honed her programming, web development, and business skills in multiple roles in infrastructure and the Office of Technology Innovation and Strategy. She also enjoyed exposure to veteran IT folks and senior leadership, allowing her to soak up their domain expertise and institutional knowledge.

“Throughout the TA Program, I’ve built a network and gained the confidence to interact with and learn from senior leaders all over the firm,” she says, citing one particular experience where she collaborated with a senior infrastructure executive to design a speaker series aimed at training the incoming workforce. “I got to learn more about our products and services, meet leaders from different areas of the firm, and further sharpen my soft skills.”

With baby boomers on the cusp of retirement, IT organizations like TIAA find their talent pipelines at a crossroads. On the one hand, they need to preserve the intellectual capital and legacy systems know-how of long-time IT employees. But they also need to prime the pipeline with a fresh crop of millennial and Gen Z employees hungry to master the skills that are the lifeblood of any modern IT shop, from cloud services and big data analytics to agile development methods.

While managing the transition presents its share of challenges, Rahul Merchant, executive vice president and CIO of TIAA, is confident there is a greater upside. As organizations continue to digitally transform, the need for different competencies is surging, yet many of the newer platforms and technologies have been democratized thanks to the infusion of artificial intelligence and new programming models that make it easier to get up to speed, Merchant says. Where TIAA and others need to shore up efforts, he contends, is in cultivating subject matter expertise—a goal that requires cross-pollination of generations, which was exactly the genesis for the TA program.

“There is a massive transformation underway as folks steadily leave the industry, but I look at this as an opportunity for us to welcome a new generation, while also upskilling the capabilities that are needed to service new sets of clients,” Merchant says. “The big challenge is putting the generations together and training new entrants with business skills.”

Generational mind meld

Experian, the credit reporting agency, has also made integrating its generational IT populations a priority as part of its efforts to modernize IT, according to Global CIO Barry Libenson. Individuals who have been with the company for some time working on legacy platforms are well disciplined in following security processes or adhering to sound coding practices like scanning for vulnerabilities prior to production. Millennials and younger generations see more value in pursuing out-of-the-box thinking, ergonomics, and usability issues since they believe that it doesn’t matter how well an application is secured or performs if people can’t use it, Libenson says.

“Each generation has something they can bring to the table” he explains. “We are constantly looking for opportunities where we can pair the previous generation with college hires to try to bring out the best in both. It gives both generations an opportunity to work with people they may not have traditionally worked with before, which makes the work environment that much more stimulating. And for Experian, it produces some incredible products.”

To ensure an appropriate pairing, Libenson works closely with Experian’s human resources team to evaluate in-coming college hires and match them with the appropriate long-time IT employees. The key is identifying senior IT leaders that are open to both learning from and mentoring younger employees. “They know they haven’t cornered the market on the best ways of working and they know this generation grew up with things like an agile mindset,” he says. “It’s all about finding out who in the organization is receptive to these programs. It won’t work for everybody.”

To that end, Libenson recognizes that it’s more effective to maximize the contributions of some employees rather than entice them to reinvent the wheel. “Instead of trying to fight the system and figure out how to transition from one workforce to another, we try to take advantage of the different perspectives and leverage them as assets,” he explains.

Competition among the different generations can also raise the stakes and encourage healthy attrition, says Satya Jayadev, vice president and CIO at Skyworks. Given the fast-paced nature of the semiconductor industry, Skyworks is intent on building an organization that can adapt quickly, speaks the language of the business, and can play a visionary role leveraging technology to transform how things are done. As a result, the company is placing more value on IT employees that come up with new business ideas and have used a multitude of tools as opposed to being siloed to one particular technology.

“It’s no longer about what technology can do, but rather what the business can do with the help of technology,” Jayadev says. “We have a good mix of all the different [generational] groups and they egg each other on in terms of thinking outside the box. Those who feel like this is what I’ve been doing for 15 or 20 years and find it difficult to change … will take up different opportunities and roles.”

Filling the pipeline

While cross-pollination efforts maximize the capabilities of the existing workforce, IT organizations are still grappling with how to keep their talent pipelines full, especially when it comes to the most in-demand skill sets. According to the 2019 State of the CIO research, data science and analytics skills are particularly hard to find, cited by 42% of respondents, up from 36% in last year’s survey. Other elusive, but in-demand competencies include security and risk management (33%), AI/machine learning (31%), and cloud services/integration (22%).

In addition to the technology skills gap, organizations are also scrambling to find IT employees with chops in soft skills like change management and strategy building, cited by 40% of 2019 State of the CIO respondents, as well as project management (32%) and business relationship management (25%).

To fill the critical skills gaps in his talent bench, Sherif Mityas, chief experience officer for TGI Fridays, has become more open to hybrid models, whether that means taking advantage of more part-time employees or turning to outside partners that specialize in key technology areas. For example, AI is an increasingly important competency for Fridays as it builds out a hyper personalized customer experience. However, instead of recruiting a staff of AI experts, Mityas has opted to take a partner approach.

“We don’t have AI experts on our team, we partner with them and use them to help develop and create new things and then they go away,” he says. “We’re a restaurant company, not Google. We need core technology experts on staff in areas like point of sale and infrastructure. For the newer technologies, we can play the field, pick and choose partners, and engage them as a short-term burst.”

For its part, Novant Health, a leading healthcare provider encompassing 15 hospitals and more than 600 physician practices, is exploring a short-term gig strategy to fill some of its IT needs while optimizing its current workforce. For example, instead of having a highly-paid network engineer make the rounds of various locations to check on equipment, Novant Health might bring on an entry-level student through a short-term gig assignment, says Angela Yochem, the provider’s executive vice president and chief digital and technology officer.

“It lets us fill our pipeline at the entry level and it creates an opportunity for young people that might not otherwise have access to a corporate environment,” she explains. “It’s not about cheap labor; it’s about creating a pipeline of diverse talent that represents all of our communities.”

To court the next-generation IT workforce needed to drive its future, broadcast company A&E Networks is concentrating on creating a work culture that places an emphasis on innovation. The firm has created a technology lab to reduce the red tape typically associated with getting approval for cutting-edge projects, says Ishit Vachhrajani, A&E’s chief technology officer. In addition, A&E Networks hosts hackathons in which it presents a specific business problem and challenges different teams to collaborate and problem solve a solution.

A&E Networks is in good company formalizing processes to encourage the free-flow exchange of ideas and collaboration: According to the 2019 State of the CIO, 33 percent of respondents are building test labs or spaces where teams can explore ideas and 32 percent are doing whatever they can to cultivate an entrepreneurial spirit.

In addition to its rotation program, TIAA promotes collaboration through the deployment of small teams with cross-generational and cross-functional representation, encouraging them to solve problems in areas such as payment and customer experience through a highly agile and iterative process and using microservices, Merchant says. The small, targeted teams are physically co-located and attend a scrum call every day. “It helps cross pollinate between generations, but it also helps fill the skills gap,” he explains. “There are baby boomers and folks in operations married with a few data scientists and language and user experience (UX) experts, all from different generations. We make sure the mix on the team is approachable so everyone learns from each other.”

TIAA also maintains an active college campus recruiting effort to shore up its talent pipeline. As opposed to in the past when it looked to attract people with knowledge and skills in a particular tool or competency, it now looks for candidates that have an aptitude for independence and who can adapt easily to an ever-changing technology mix.

“We are a 100-year-old company and plan to be around for another 100 years,” he explains. “We make an investment upfront in attracting the right talent because these are our future leaders, and with the generational change going on, we need to get ahead of the game.”