For some years now, I have been seeing a reasonably large number of articles about the “impending skills shortage” in IT.

Based partly on my own recent experience and also on that of numerous IT practitioners I have interacted with in recent months, I have come to several startling conclusions, and this blog is intended to acquaint its’ readers with them and hopefully spark some discussion about this subject.

There are numerous articles already posted about this skills shortage, such as:

Canada needs 182,000 people to fill these IT positions by 2019 — IT World Canada

Why Canada has an 182,000 IT talent shortage while lots of tech professionals are out of work — IT World Canada

Tackling the IT skills shortage — The British Computer Society

Why Canadian employers are worried about an IT skills shortage in 2016 — Inteqna, IT Recruitment Specialists

As interesting as these articles are, they miss two overriding facts of finding IT practitioners to fill these perceived gaps, and those are:

  1. The unwillingness of prospective employers to understand that the combination of skills that they are looking for in a single individual simply cannot exist.
  2. The expectation that individuals with anything approaching the required skill sets are not going to apply for (or stay in) a job at the salary levels being offered.

I will be addressing both of those points in detail in upcoming blogs, but for now, I will cap with the salient points.

In the area of the first fact, I have been reviewing numerous job postings published recently and have noticed that there are quite a number of postings that require combinations of advanced skills which are almost impossible for a single individual to achieve. These include general things like:

  • 5+ years experience as a senior security specialist
  • 5+ years as a senior infrastructure specialist
  • 5+ years as a senior virtualization specialist
  • 5+ years as a senior server specialist
  • 5+ years as a senior database specialist

To make matters worse, I have commonly seen postings that demand combinations of three or more of the above requirements! Now, discounting that it takes time and work experience to move to a senior level in even one of those classifications, it is apparent that an individual who has actually attained three of those qualifications would have to be at least 35 years’ old, plus whatever time it took him/her to reach senior level in each of the three categories!

In addition to this, the postings often require specific certifications which, if taken together, would require the individual to be a full-time student, doing nothing but studying and taking exams! One recent posting I came across required multiple Microsoft specialist certifications (MCSE; MCITP; Exchange and PowerPoint, etc.); VMware VCP and Cisco CCNP. To make things even more interesting, in the ‘nice to have’ category, they casually threw in both CISSP and CCIE!

Now, anyone with any knowledge of IT certifications at all would know that for any individual to hold all of those credentials would be an exceptional achievement in and of itself. In fact, if anyone like that could be found, I expect that several of those credentials would have to be ‘paper’ certifications, ie. the individual crammed for the tests and achieved the credential with little or no practical experience. The time, training requirements and verified experience required for the high-end qualifications (CISSP and CCIE), would virtually demand that being the case.

This leads me to the second point I made, which is that the prospective employer then expects to hire an individual with those inflated technical requirements at a median salary! The position I mentioned above was offering a salary range of $85,000 to 95,000 per annum depending on experience! It does not take a lot of research to find published studies on the remuneration currently being offered for those certifications to find that holding the CISSP alone commands an annual salary of over $105,000, and holders of the CCIE are usually in the range of $140,000+ per annum.

This job posting has been in existence for over three months now, so is this because there is a skills shortage? I would be willing to bet that if anyone polled this employer, their answer would be an emphatic yes. In reality of course, it is the inflated expectations of the potential employer and the low salary offered that has created the perceived skills shortage!

In the employers’ defense, this type of situation often comes about because a ‘baby boomer’ employee with years of experience and abundant time during their career to achieve credentials has recently retired and the HR department is now looking for a replacement. During that process, the employer looks at the skills of the former employee (all of which have been attained during an extended career) and then tries to find a new employee that embodies all of those skills. Of course, as a new employee, the employer does not expect to pay the same salary as the recently-retired one as the old one had earned annual salary increases for performance and the new employee is essentially untried.

By and large, those individuals who are highly-experienced and heavily certified, know their worth and many of those are not interested in working at median wages for an employer who has no idea of what the job entails.

So, is there a skills shortage?

I believe that there is a perceived skills shortage, caused by over-inflated expectations and exacerbated by low salaries. In fact the skilled people are out there. One only needs a realistic approach to find them.

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  • Beat Bucher

    Thanks Bill for writing such an article !! I’ve been in the IT field for 3 decades and can’t believe nowadays when looking at job openings, what expectations the hiring companies have (or is it because head-hunters get paid by the # of acronyms that put into a job description 🙂 ).
    I’m always amazed by the salaries that are advertised for some senior level IT jobs (read 10-15 years of experience) that offer way below 100k$.. looks like that 100k$ barrier can only be broken when you’re getting into the C-levels… not for technical resources, which is a shame and a non-sense.

    • Wm. (Bill) Turgeon, I.S.P.

      You are quite welcome. I am constantly amazed by the “requirements” of some of these advertised positions. It is high time that someone acquaints the HR people and especially the headhunters with what exactly is required both to attain the credentials they so blithely demand as well as what is required to maintain them.

      • Charles Harbinger

        Bill, you’ve definitely hit the nail on the head with this article. Everyone wants a specialist in a precise area (or areas!), and they’d really prefer to not pay much for it if they can help it. Employers need to get more realistic about the reality that high quality employees aren’t always poofed into an organization via a job posting, but instead grown through proper mentoring and experience. I’ve seen lots of folks with several certifications struggling to apply their “paper” certificates to the constraints of real life implementations. It takes time to learn to effectively work with large systems, and internal procedures and processes are unique to every organization.

        A friend of mine once told me that a 16 month internship was better than his 4 years of university in every conceivable way, and I think that alone should speak volumes: education (including certification) does not indicate inherent skill, but rather potential. Instead of evaluating candidates based on “hard requirements”, they should be evaluated on their potential to grow into an organizations needs.

        Certainly there are situations where people actually need “super” specialists (ex. a SQLServer expert contracted to help with a complex database migration), but those are inherently costly engagements. The assumption that a SQLServer expert who’s also a Linux master and knows a fair bit about iPhone development is seemingly going to walk into your organization for $80k is silly, and is unprecedented in every other occupation to the point where such job postings would be absurd (Imagine asking for a mechanic who also does veterinary work on the side).

  • Amin

    Brilliant observations, Bill. It seems that employers are looking for mini-Gods when it comes to hiring an employee. As you observed, “combination of skills that they are looking for in a single individual simply cannot exist”. They can, of course, interview 100 employees and try and find the right one. But they rarely do that.

    • Wm. (Bill) Turgeon, I.S.P.

      Yes Amin, you are quite correct. Too often the HR people simply accept an individuals’ resume at face value and/or scan their social media sites (Facebook, Etc.) and make judgments based on the content they find there. Even that process is becoming more and more ‘automated’, so skilled applicants are bypassed without even being reviewed by a PERSON, simply because their resume did not have the correct ‘buzzwords’ the HR people are looking for, and so it was discarded before being passed on to a person for review.
      Once hired, a poorly-trained but astute individual can often use the technological ‘buzzwords’ and general technology knowledge to impress the individuals they report to. It is a sad fact that persons hired as IT Directors and IT Managers are often hired on the basis of their business knowledge and financial acumen instead of their technical knowledge. To such senior people, lacking in in-depth technical knowledge, anyone familiar with IT terminology can sound like an ‘expert’.
      Even when they use internal IT staff to assess an individuals’ competency, the results are tainted by the technical individuals’ own competence, or lack thereof!
      I once applied for a job that had an HR person and a ‘supervisory technical staffer’ asking questions, and the technical person asked a question that to paraphrase, went like this:
      “What step is not a normal part of the process in installing (a given product)?”
      I thought about this for a minute or two and could think of nothing in the installation procedure that was not ‘normal’. When I confessed that I did not know what he was referring to, he said that it was the ‘domainprep’ aspect of the installation!
      Anyone who had run the installation routine for that product would know that process was an integral part of the installation procedure and entirely normal to the process. One had to intentionally bypass it for it not to take place! This was one of their ‘senior’ people, who was drawing on his recent ‘experience’ and must have skipped that step as he said it caused him problems on his recent installation engagement. I could not help but think “Do I really want to work for a company that has someone with that limited knowledge as a ‘supervisor’?” and the answer was “NO”, so I did not even bother to correct him, and terminated the interview.
      Incidentally, this was a local IT Services company that advertised they only hired “The best and brightest IT personnel.”

  • Ken

    As a retired CIO, with over 35 years of IT experiences and an author of 2 text-books on IT management, I have always been amazed at the “IT Skills Shortage” myth. I have always question the accuracy of these statements-most of the time they are from “IT head-hunting” firms. IT consulting firms posts many non-existent requirements for the main purpose of obtaining resumes from individuals from across the world. In most cases, the technical and academic and professional qualifications are impossible-never filled. I believe these are the type of statistics that “head-hunters” companies use to distort the IT shortage gap.. many more but will end here. I have been assessing the demand and supply side of IT skilled requirements and some of the statistics obtained are questionable – question the sources.

    • Wm. (Bill) Turgeon, I.S.P.

      Hi Ken,
      You are quite correct in this. In my experience, most of the ‘head hunting’ firms are using staff members who have no idea of the actual technical requirements of a given position. They simply take their clients’ requirements, set up the ‘buzzwords’ to search for and let the reviewing software do the rest.
      Very recently, I replied to a posting for a position involving provisioning of new workstations and saw that one of their check-off box ‘must-haves’ was THREE years’ experience in provisioning Windows 10.
      I emailed the HR person to inform them that such a requirement was impossible to meet as Windows 10 had not even been released to the public for a full year yet, and even someone like myself, who was on the ‘Windows Insider’ program had, at best only 18 months or so of experience with Windows 10!!
      In her reply, she thanked me for the information and told me that was a client requirement that someone in their firm had simply entered into the screening software as a pre-condition!! She said that she would correct it, but it still left me wondering how many other incidents like this are out there in current job postings?
      Interestingly, in a follow-up in-person interview, she told me that several applicants had actually checked the box claiming such experience!!
      While I will not name them, this was a premiere head-hunting company!
      Incidentally, what is your take on current job applicants? Once you retired, was your employer able to find someone with your technical skills and a reasonable experience level to fill your old position?

  • Len Hannam

    You have nailed it! For years, I have heard of the same “skill shortage crisis” when in fact the only crisis is their inflated expectations and ridiculous requirements! I suspect they are doing this on purpose so that they can justify hiring temporary foreign workers who are willing to work for a fraction of what Canadian IT workers get. See RBG Igate scandal:

    http://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2013/04/07/rbc_defends_plan_to_lay_off_45_canadians_outsource_their_jobs.html

    which lead to the government curtailing the use of temporary foreign workers in Canada. The other reason I believe the employers are crying the blues about a skill shortage is so that they can increase their off-shoring of our IT jobs to workers in the far east who are willing to work for $8 to $15 per hour!

    • Wm. (Bill) Turgeon, I.S.P.

      I know exactly what you mean. A posting by Alberta Health Services was filled by a recent immigrant from the Philippines with whom I am acquainted, while a second individual with whom I am acquainted had also applied for the same position. The second individual was better qualified and had more experience, yet the immigrant was the one hired!
      When I talked to him later, I was interested to note that he was hired at the lowest compensation level listed for the position, which stated a range of compensation “based on experience”.
      As an accredited SFIA consultant, I know that the second individual was the better choice, but he would also have been expecting something closer to the high end of the range posted for that position, so it certainly appears that your comments are proved out.

  • Ben

    Hi Bill, been a software developer 10+ years an agree with you 100%. Maybe I watch too much X-Files but perhaps there is some kind of agenda to import more talent and/or drive down wages? Also many of my friends moved to the US for the money early in their career and now I regret not doing the same. Patriotism and loyalty are punished here.

    • Wm. (Bill) Turgeon, I.S.P.

      Hello Ben,
      I can certainly agree with you there. It has been my experience that loyalty is a one-way street. Employers demand that loyalty from their employees but rarely return it. I know of several employers that will hire an individual because of a specific skill set, neglect to provide any training time or resources (even though they usually promise them during the hiring process), then dismiss a valuable employee once their skills are not ‘up to date’ and hire a recent grad instead. Of course, then they lose the experience factor, and often have to spend their money on “senior consultants” to come in and correct the problems created by the less-experienced individuals they have just hired.

  • Janice McCullough

    Great article! I’m a Software Developer & IT Specialist with 20+ years’ experience; I agree that the skills and compensation being offered for so-called senior positions don’t match reality.

    The other two areas where recruiters and hr staff miss the boat is their narrow view of technical skills and the value that experience provides.

    Technologies change so fast that even a 2 year job with static tools can out-date your skills. Suddenly expert skills in Microsoft, SQL, SOAP and PowerShell have become passé because employers are looking for Linux, PostgreSQL, RESTful web services and Python.

    Can a senior person learn these skills? Of course! Unless you have lived under a rock, SW Developers and IT Professionals in the industry for 10+ years have proven their ability to learn and transition skills.

    Will a senior person bring more to the table than technology? Yes! People, communication, problem-solving skills and the ability to adapt and change all get better over time.

    Recent example: I was refused an interview recently for a senior role where I met every qualification, except one piece of software. I have used other applications like this in the past and offered to take training on my own time and dime if they gave me an interview. The employer refused. This position has gone unfilled for 8 months.

    So, is there a skills shortage? Maybe – maybe not. We won’t know until recruiters and employers stop filtering out qualified candidates solely on technical requirements rather than looking at the entire package.

    • Yolanda Sun

      Hi Janice, I agree with you on your opinions. In many situations, soft skills are more crucial. Relatively, It’s easy for people to learn about hard skills, but it’s difficult to learn about soft skills and tap them into daily works effectively because it depends on many valuable personal traits and experience. People, like you, who have excellent softs skills and high level hard skills are absolute treasures.

    • Wm. (Bill) Turgeon, I.S.P.

      Hi Janice,
      Well said! In addition, a senior person will often have experience that is directly transferrable from platform to platform. Things such as testing methodology and user experience are things in which prior experience is highly valuable and to a large degree quite portable from one platform to another.
      As an aside, creative skills and thought processes are developed by experience, and can not really be ‘learned’ from books or classes as they vary considerably from individual to individual and are often a by-product of individual experience. Thus a senior person will have a deeper ‘well’ of experience to draw on.
      The creative skills are much more prevalent in the software side of IT than the hardware side, and much more difficult to ‘learn’ but the thought processes are developed individually and it is here that individual experience makes the difference between a novice and an accomplished professional.
      In addition, it has been my experience that individuals who have ‘grown up’ with IT from its’ infancy have the unique advantage of learning from the ground up as technology has advanced. Reviewing recent course content reveals much more of a ‘building block’ concept rather than an in-depth understanding of the underlying technology that provides the basis of current IT trends, and this lack of deep understanding limits the recent grads by restricting their depth of knowledge.