by Paul Heltzel

IT skills gap: Facts vs. fictions

Oct 01, 2018
CareersIT LeadershipIT Skills

With demand for top talent outpacing supply, organizations are scrambling for any edge. But any successful hiring strategy begins with a clear understanding of talent gap truths and FUD.

Headlines, hiring surveys and conventional wisdom suggest there are far more openings for highly skilled IT jobs, than qualified workers to fill them.

Research firm Gartner reports that “by 2020, 75 percent of organizations will experience visible business disruptions due to [infrastructure and operations] skills gaps, which is an increase from less than 20 percent in 2016.”

There’s plenty of discussion about using technology, especially AI and machine learning, to improve the search for talent and to help recruiters and hiring managers place strong candidates. Meanwhile, some argue that the best way to close the gap is for organizations to fill the pipeline by upskilling current IT staff on in-demand job skills, like data science and cloud security. Based on our survey of IT pros, it appears firms and institutions are increasingly taking this approach, and those that do find it pays dividends.

To separate skills gap fact from FUD (fear, uncertainty, doubt), we reached out to a wide range of tech leaders and asked what they’re seeing firsthand when trying to hire, and how they’re resolving their hiring headaches. Here’s what we found.

Fact: Specialized roles take time to fill

Hiring managers bemoan the time it takes to find qualified candidates in a number of roles. In particular AI, cybersecurity and data science are frequently mentioned as sectors where the talent pool is shallow.

“The IT market is very tight, with current unemployment rates sitting at less than 1 percent,” says Mike Weast, regional vice president of IT for recruiting firm Addison Group. “The hardest positions to fill right now are cloud architects, engineers, administrators and security engineers. These positions require a skill set in the cloud and security — with the demand for both far outpacing the supply.”

Al Smith, chief technology officer for iCIMS, says the past two years have been particularly tough when trying to recruit highly skilled IT positions.

“The fact is that many of the roles companies are hiring for now didn’t exist just two years ago,” Smith says. “Technology is changing so fast and candidates aren’t able to keep up. According to our system data, it took employers on average 109 days to fill roles in machine learning and AI, which is much longer than the average of 44 days it takes employers to fill jobs overall.”

Employers spent nearly 2.5 months trying to fill positions for cyber and information security roles, Smith says.

“Security needs to be prioritized in all companies, so it’s no surprise that there’s high demand but limited resources for cyber and information security roles. Within hiring itself companies need to ensure they are respecting the privacy and security of candidate data, especially in light of GDPR,” he says.

Fiction: Bootcamps are narrowing the talent gap

Not surprisingly, the toughest hires for most managers involve roles that require seasoned IT staff who’ve seen it all and can draw on their experience to solve seemingly intractable problems. And while bootcamps can quickly get students up to speed on needed skills, nothing replaces time on the job.

“Online trainings can help bridge the gap where a great candidate is missing a certain skill the client needs,” says Addison Group’s Weast. “But in general, bootcamps don’t teach students advanced skills that employers are looking for since by nature, they are designed to be surface level.”

Harj Taggar, CEO of Triplebyte, says bootcamps haven’t been helpful in finding engineers who know how to build things. “Bootcamps haven’t really succeeded,” Taggar says, “because they increased the supply of very junior engineers but this isn’t what companies need to hire the most.”

A report by cloud infrastructure provider DigitalOcean found that while bootcamp grads felt more prepared to enter the workforce than college graduates, they also felt they were at a disadvantage compared to CS grads in job interviews.

“While the majority of hiring managers say they make no distinction between bootcamp vs. college graduates,” the report found, “48 percent have not filled any positions with a bootcamp graduate in recent years.”

Fact: Competition widens the gap 

In his experience, Taggar says it’s hard to find good DevOps candidates, as well as site reliability engineers and those with Android chops, in part, because competition is so stiff for these roles.

“The main problem we experience is the best software engineers have many options today,” Taggar says, “and we need to have a convincing pitch for why we are a unique and exciting place to work.”

According to the DigitalOcean report, about a third of hiring managers are finding it difficult to retain top talent because of attractive opportunities at other organizations.

Fiction: Qualified candidates always rise to the surface

AI-assisted recruiting and hiring — along with other tech-based solutions — can help find tech talent. Yet hiring managers say that part of the trouble filling IT positions is, in some cases, an inability to connect with the right candidates rather than the skills simply not being there in great enough numbers.

Triplebyte’s Taggar, whose company places tech candidates after completing coding quizzes, says missed connections could contribute to an inability to fill certain IT roles.

“Recruiting teams typically look at a very small pool of candidates — those that attended a top college or are working at a well-known technology company,” Taggar says. “This pool gets a huge concentration of interest from recruiters while many other qualified candidates, whose resumes don’t stand out in the same way, don’t receive any interest. Being better able to identify skilled candidates from different backgrounds will significantly reduce the skills gap.”

Kurt Heikkinen, president and CEO of tech recruiting firm Montage, says organizations need to improve their hiring processes to close the skills gap.  

“I’d say in most cases, an organization’s inability to engage with and create interest among qualified candidates is the main issue they face in attracting and hiring qualified candidates,” Heikkinen says. “With the lowest unemployment levels we’ve seen in years, today’s tech job seekers have more power and influence than ever before. But at the end of the day, these candidates also have certain expectations from potential employers. They expect the hiring experience to be fast, transparent and easy.”

Qualified candidates expect that the hiring process to benefit from technology as it has in other aspects of their lives, Heikkinen says: “To attract top tech talent in today’s competitive hiring environment, organizations need to center their recruiting strategies and tools around enhancing the candidate experience, accelerating the process and keeping candidates engaged so that they stay top of mind throughout their job searches.”

Fact: Soft skills are in demand

Since technology shifts so quickly, one of the most in-demand skills is the ability to deal with change, says Smith of iCIMS.

In fact, nearly half of recruiters cited adaptability as the soft skill most valued in a job candidate. As different technology and occupations gain momentum and become more prevalent in the market, employees need to be able to perform their job with the drive needed to overcome any setbacks they might face. Soft skills are often viewed as secondary compared to technical skills and experience, but these qualities are what will help an employee progress in his or her career.”

Ken Harper, director of mainframe services at Ensono, says the solution may simply be a change in mindset when hiring.  

“Non-technical skills are just as important, if not more, than technical skill sets,” Harper says. “Organizations should be looking to hire for the future, not the present.” Harper recommends hiring managers to look for candidates who are self-directed, communicate well and are comfortable adapting.

“AI doesn’t qualify a candidate showing up on time, a strong handshake, or making eye contact when communicating,” says Addison Group’s Weast. “A local recruiter knows their client’s needs, and understands the soft skills necessary to thrive on the client’s team, which is something AI can’t gauge.”

Companies using AI and coding challenges to help find candidates assist with filtering and ranking potential hires, but they miss out on subtler skills that can help predict future success.

“While these tools help automate processes for recruiters and assess candidates’ technical skills,” Smith says, “they don’t take into account a candidate’s soft skills or the traits and qualities that will impact the way an individual executes their work.”

Fiction: Firms won’t consider candidates without a degree

According to a hiring report form recruiting software maker iCIMS, while 70 percent of IT staff hires had a bachelor’s degree, there’s an increase in hiring for IT staff who have no college degree, with a focus on skills rather than education level.

The survey of hiring professionals also found that it’s become more difficult to find skilled technology positions that it was just two years ago.

“More technical jobs are emphasizing the need for the skills to perform the duties required by the job, rather than just a college degree alone,” Smith says, in what he calls a demand for “new collar” jobs.

“The idea of a new collar job — that doesn’t come with the price tag of an expensive, four-year college degree — allows employees to focus specifically on the skills they need for a role and enables employers to hone in on job qualifications.”

Fact: The skills gap affects legacy systems, too

While skills gap needs in emerging technology is frequently a focus, a lesser-recognized need is for skilled IT workers who understand legacy systems.

Ensono’s Harper says 90 percent of the Fortune 500 companies use mainframes, but the staff who know how to run and maintain them are reaching retirement age.

“There is a demand for the mainframe workforce,” Harper says. “But the use of cloud has grown exponentially over the last few years, attracting the majority of young talent and leaving Baby Boomers as one of the only generations trained to operate in the mainframe. This becomes a huge hiring problem as those employees start retiring and employers have to fill mainframe roles with millennials who are more interested in careers in cloud computing and other new technologies.”

Fact: Investing in current employees can help close the skills gap

Some organizations are finding that the solutions for the skills gap can be found close to home. Gartner recommends developing an in-house inventory of available skills as a first step, and predicts companies will create “digital business universities” coupled with mentoring in infrastructure and operations to close the gap.

“More and more, employers are investing in upskilling programs,” says Todd Weneck, VP at Modis. “Training programs need to have clear-cut objectives with deliverables and give employees ownership over their own work,” says Harper, who also advocates outreach to help grow nearby talent before workers even enter the workforce.  

“Finding new hires isn’t an easy task,” Harper says. “To attain strong IT candidates, businesses need to develop and commit to a succession plan to create an internship program while recruiting new hires. This helps their recruitment efforts because it enables them to loosen skills requirements and reach a broader and more diverse talent pool that can be trained in the right skills once they are hired on. Hiring managers should aim to assess the well-roundness of a candidate — looking at the soft skills they have and what hard skills they could learn on the job.”