Tales of skills shortage untrue say unemployed IT professionals

Terri Morgan could sell her talents to anyone that would listen, but software programs used to screen IT job applicants don’t hear so well.

Morgan has dealt with more résumé screening programs than human beings in her quest to gain a live interview at companies such as IBM, KPMG and Disney.

These talent management applications look for key words and patterns but can’t, after all, recognize human opportunity.

“I have the skills these companies say they want, but my résumé doesn’t come out when they apply their sorting algorithms or random lotteries,” Morgan says. “They are using software to look for A, B or C, so they are missing the rest of the alphabet in terms of technical skills.”

Morgan’s experience is at the heart of the industry’s so-called labor crisis, with companies shouting about the shortage of skilled workers and out-of-work IT professionals saying shortage claims are contrived by employers who are looking to offer less in compensation, force out experienced workers and hire young or foreign staff in their place.

“Hiring managers are being told by recruiters there aren’t any people to hire, and then everyone wants to look to H-1B and other foreign worker programs when there is a whole host of us in this country that have really good skills and can easily learn others,” Morgan says.

Stories abound about the IT talent pool drying up as baby boomers retire and college students avoiding high-tech studies, and skilled IT workers say they are being overlooked for these open positions.

“You read all these articles and you want to scream, ‘I’m right here!'” says David Currier, a member of the infrastructure team for Perot Systems/Owen & Minor Medical in Richmond, Va. Currier is working on contract thousands of miles from his Seattle home and continues to look for a position that better suits his life.

“You start to feel invisible,” Currier says, “but then you realize companies are looking for an exact fit in terms of skills, experience and salary, and that might not synch up with what you have to offer. I am not at the point yet where I’d lie to get a job.”

Experts say the crux of the job disconnect involves three key areas: companies either don’t have the time or money to invest in training or don’t make it a priority, so employees get out of synch; advances in business and technology outpace the ability of IT professionals to keep up; and salary expectations established during the tech boom of the 1990s can today be considered exorbitant.

Training droughtCompanies feeling the pressure to fill positions may have created their own problem by not allocating enough time, money and resources to training programs, experts say.

“Training is an opportunity to prepare your workforce for the changes in technology and business needs,” says Neill Hopkins, vice president of skills development at the Computer Technology Industry Association, or CompTIA. “Still, in many organizations, as soon as times get tough, training is the first budget to get cut — which will hurt in the long run as systems get more complex and technology changes come faster and faster.”

The lack of priority given to training forces companies to look outside for new skills, but hiring people based on a specific and limited skill sets needed in the short term ultimately will land companies in a personnel pinch, experts say.

“The mentality is that when companies need IT people, they will hire them for whatever skills, and if they don’t need them, they let them go. There isn’t an interest in building careers in IT for employees anymore,” says David Foote, CEO and chief research officer at Foote Partners, which focuses on IT workforce issues. “It’s almost as if IT people have become expendable.”

Even when the money is there, the pressure cooker nature of the work can make it impossible to use. Ron Nutter, Network World Help Desk Editor and an IT professional looking for full-time work in the Kansas City, Mo., area, says he had US$4,000 for career development in one position but could never find a chance to use it: “It was never a good time for the company.”

And now that he is searching for a job, he says the expectation for candidates to be fully up to speed on new technologies is ironic. “They want you to have what they need walking in the door but often refuse to make training available,” Nutter says.”To me it begs the question, ‘Where do you want to spend your money? Finding new people or training the good IT staff you have?'”

Staffing agencies such as TAC Worldwide say they advise their clients to keep training top of mind.

“You may spend $1,000 to train an existing person, but you’ll spend $6,000 hiring a new one,” says Steve Clifford, field recruiting director for TAC Worldwide.

Skills shiftTechnical skills are a must for any IT position, but the type of skills needed has changed and the balance of technical know-how vs. business acumen has shifted dramatically, meaning once marketable and specialized skills are now considered commodity.

“There are a lot of IT folks out there that for some reason can’t get up to speed on what is more in demand now, and they will be bypassed in the hiring process for younger workers or outsourced,” Currier says.

Among the skills wanted today is business knowledge. Industry watchers say IT job seekers must expect to work with business managers, incorporate business plans in IT strategy and talk the language of the business.

“This has been a slow shift, but it’s real now,” says John Estes, vice president of strategic alliances at Robert Half Technology, an IT staffing consultancy in Menlo Park, Calif. “IT people need to be well-versed in the business. It’s not about building a better mousetrap anymore; it’s about proving what you have done delivers a return on investment, improved services or made more money for the business.”

TAC Worldwide’s Clifford agrees: “If you are an IT professional, it is critical you get involved at a business level and that you are not just a coder, so to speak. Today you have to understand the business you are supporting.”

For this reason some high-tech graduates today also pursue degrees in business management. Those that focused solely on computer science say they are at a loss when looking for work, and some believe the education system didn’t adequately prepare them for the skills employers want.

“There is a severe skills disconnect,” says one job seeker who wishes to remain anonymous as he continues his four-year search for full-time employment. “What the college courses offer and career services say employers are looking for is completely off. I have a bachelor’s in computer science and I’m [also pursuing that in] grad school, but universities are not training us in the skills employers really want so I’m not sure my graduate work will help me find a job.”

Skewed salary expectationsSalary requirements is also a point of contention in the hiring process. IT professionals say companies won’t offer what experienced tech workers deserve.

“I understand the market is soft, but if you want talented people, you should offer pay commensurate with skills,” Nutter says. “I also look at the benefits package. If that is good, the pay can be less, but that will only carry you so far.”

Industry watchers argue that salary expectations developed during the high-tech boom need to be right-sized for today’s economy. While Nutter, Morgan and Currier all can recall a time when they could pick and choose positions based on the highest pay, experts say today’s IT market won’t bear that same luxury.

“Employers are always looking for younger talent for a lower price point because it benefits the business,” says CompTIA’s Hopkins. “IT pros need to understand this, keep their skills updated and not fall behind, because that makes them vulnerable.”

Currier says companies prefer to hire young IT workers not only because the pay is lower but also because they can work them long hours on the promise they will make more money and advance in their careers.

“They take advantage of kids that don’t already know what senior IT people know: The Microsoft millionaire story only happens to a few people out of thousands, no matter how hard you work,” he says.

IT staffing experts say companies today don’t base salary solely on technical expertise or years of experience. Newcomers might be surprised they won’t get six figures to start, and veteran IT workers expecting an increase every year could be disappointed.

Part of the reason is the current economic climate, but Beyond.com CEO Rich Milgram points out that even specialized skills don’t promise the same pay they once did. And advances in social networking and Web 2.0 technologies in which non-technical people can download software, communicate with each other easily and even build Web pages, has created the perception that IT skills might not require higher pay.

“It’s going to be tough on entry-level people with little hands-on experience and high-end people who have had bigger salaries,” Milgram says. “Both groups will have a tougher time finding a job because salaries are coming down. Frankly, it’s just easier for business people to do some of the technical things that in the past required a special skill and a high-end IT professional.”

But back to the fundamental question: Is or isn’t there a skills shortage? At the very least, there is a misalignment of needs and expectations.

Employers aren’t finding the skills they want in the candidates applying for work, but that might be because they are overly reliant on applications that can’t recognize opportunity, and the shortage might be of their own making if they aren’t investing adequately in training.

And IT professionals can’t seem to find jobs that match what they have to offer for what they believe is adequate compensation. That means they might have to update their skills and come to grips with new economic realities.

The irony is the IT industry thrives on change but to date hasn’t done well in preparing for it.

“Technology forces skills shortages,” says Foote of Foote Partners. “Technology changes too quickly for IT professionals to keep up or for companies to know in advance what technology they will need to put in place in the future to better compete.”

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