by Sharon Florentine

Can better job descriptions close the IT skills gap?

Jul 29, 2015
CareersIT JobsIT Leadership

The skills gap is real, but debate over its root causes continues. IT executives blame a shortage of skills, but IT professionals looking for work say exaggerated requirements are the issue. Could a simple tweak in the way you approach writing your job postings be the answer?

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It seems the debate about the IT skills gap has reached a consensus — both IT leaders and IT workers believe the IT skills gap exists and that it negatively impacts IT operations. But debate remains about the root causes of the skills gap and how best to address them, according to a recent IT Skills Gap Survey released by staffing solutions, IT talent management expertise and IT services provider TEKsystems.

Pointing fingers

While IT leaders point the finger at a lack of qualified candidates and a shortage of necessary skills, IT professionals — those in the job market actively looking for work — believe excessive requirements are causing organizations to have unrealistic expectations when sourcing and hiring talent. The truth is somewhere in the middle.

Both IT leaders and IT workers agree that skills matching is difficult — 81 percent of IT leaders indicate it is extremely or moderately difficult to find quality candidates and 73 percent of IT professionals say it is extremely or moderately difficult to find positions for which they are qualified. Sixty three percent of IT professionals surveyed cite unrealistic technical expectations as the biggest challenge to finding a job.

“The survey reinforces what we already suspected: The IT skills gap is real and is having a significant impact on organizations’ abilities to be successful — it can lead to a vicious cycle of lower employee morale, inefficiency and attrition,” says Jason Hayman, TEKsystems Research Manager.

In addition to a comprehensive workforce strategy that includes “a broad set of approaches for sourcing, screening, hiring and onboarding, succession management and developing leadership pipelines,” Hayman says a few simple tweaks to the way organizations develop their job postings can go a long way toward addressing the skills gap.

“So much of the skills gap problem starts with the job description. What this means is that there is a disconnect in skills matching. The hiring managers and the executives are saying, ‘People don’t have the skills needed for this job,’ and candidates are saying, ‘The company’s expectations are completely unreasonable.’ Recruiting is more an art than a science, especially in IT, where job roles can vary dramatically and where the person doing the hiring may not be technical themselves,” says Hayman.

Separate must-haves from nice-to-haves

To write a great job description, hiring managers, recruiters and executives should partner with IT to determine what the bare necessities are for the job, skills-wise and then add in soft skills, says Hayman.

“Sometimes folks outside of IT who are tasked with hiring for an IT position overcompensate. They throw everything and the kitchen sink into a job description without understanding what’s completely necessary and what’s ‘nice to have.’ Faced with a long list of requirements, candidates get discouraged, feel that they don’t meet 100 percent of the requirements, and don’t apply,” says Hayman, or they can fail an initial screening when a hiring manager or recruiter focuses on skills they lack — but which aren’t critical to the job.

Sarah Nahm, CEO of Lever, an application-based sourcing, recruiting, hiring and ATS solution, says her company has removed requirements from any of the firm’s job descriptions. Instead, Lever focuses on how candidates will grow within the role, and how closely they match up with the firm’s mission and values.

“You should emphasize the opportunity for the job seeker, and how they can grow, rather than just ‘have a job.’ This is much more effective than having a checklist against which people have to match themselves — and you end up with candidates whose strengths and accomplishments are a better fit for your firm,” Nahm says.

What does success look like?

When you’re writing these types of descriptions for your careers site, focus on what a candidate will accomplish within the first three, six, nine and 12 months on the job — what success will look like and how they can contribute to that. This is especially important when trying to attract passive candidates, according to Nahm saying, “We’ve heard a lot that people saw our jobs page and they weren’t even looking for another job, they weren’t even seriously considering applying, but because of the way we presented the opportunity, it made them want to apply.”

Nahm adds that collaboration between the hiring manager, supervisors and the recruiting partner can help develop a powerful, attractive job description that defines the most important priorities of the company and the role. So make sure you’re looking at exactly what the priorities are, what’s interesting and promising about your company, the role and the business,” she says.

Focus on culture

“Legendary Boston Celtics coach Red Auerbach used to say of basketball players, ‘You can’t teach height,’ and that is analogous with IT in that you can’t teach culture or personality — so hire for what you can’t teach and focus on education and training for the rest. How ambitious is this candidate? How dedicated? What’s their willingness to learn? Focus on what their innate skills are, rather than matching a laundry list of requirements,” says Hayman.

This approach works especially well at the entry-level and lower-level positions where exact skill matches aren’t as critical, he says. “If you’re regularly passing up candidates that are a great fit but who maybe don’t have five specific certifications, or that have 10 years of experience instead of the 12 you stated in the job description — that’s paralysis by analysis. You’re deliberately limiting your hiring pool,” Hayman says.

Think long-term

This does require a shift in mind-set to focus less on the immediate term and more on the long-term, since you’ll most likely have to do some training — but the results can be well worth it. “Sometimes, you have to make the commitment to invest now, knowing that your strategy might not see ROI for five years. Starting with the job description, can shift everything that happens after that, from partnerships between IT and HR, developing a talent pipeline, new training and education opportunities,” Hayman says.