IT skills gap forces CIOs to get creative

With shortage of workers well-versed in wireless networking, cloud computing, mobile security, and big data analytic, some firms offer cross-training programs

It's becoming more and more difficult for CIOs to find workers well-versed in ever-changing technologies like wireless networking, cloud computing, mobile security, and big data analytics.

Thus, IT managers are looking for people who have training in multiple disciplines. And if they can't find them or can't afford them, they're implementing cross-training programs for the workers they have.

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According to several top IT managers at SNW here this week, CIOs are working hard to break down specialization among their staffs.

David Richter, vice president of Infrastructure Solutions at Kimberly-Clark, said he recently revamped the IT titles in his department, cutting the number of job descriptions from more than 350 to about 40.

"We definitely have a skills gap. I need a broader bench. I need people who have two or three areas of expertise," he said.

"Part of our training and individual development plans ... are focused on training people to make them more competent in their current role, and also for their next role," Richter added.

The additional training both adds to the workers skill sets and lets CIOs better deal with constrained IT budgets by not having to hire more people with specific skills, he said.

Kimberly Clark sees problems in hiring experts in security technology. Richter noted that security is difficult because the technology is constantly changing to adapt ever-changing mobile technologies and persistent threats.

"That's a big issue for us," said Richter, who also cited difficult in finding network, database and video expertise. "We provide video conferencing for the business across the globe," he noted.

Theresa Meadows, CIO of Cook Children's Health Care System, Texas, said security is also a looming concern for the Fort Worth firm because of regulatory pressures to keep patient information safe.

"Healthcare is typically five or six years behind the IT curve," she said. "Our use of cloud is minimal because of perceived security concerns."

Meadows said she is also under pressure to take advantage of big data analytics technology, which can be used to segment medical information so it's more useful to physicians, nurses and medical technicians.

The health care firm's IT staff has doubled over the last three or so years because of its rapid expansion. Cook Children's Health Care System has more than 4.000 employees and operates more than 60 pediatric medical and specialty clinic offices throughout Texas..

Meadows said the IT organization has created a "pod" training program that groups three IT employees with different skills.

Meadows places long-tenured employees, mid-term workers and new hires on a team in order to gain confidence in existing and new skills, she said.

For example, she said, "on the Citrix team, there was one Citrix admin who was really our only skilled administrator who is now training the other two. The other two are training him on the newer skills just coming into our organization."

The pod training concept is particularly useful for employees who have received technical training, but not any hands-on experience. Learning from more senior IT workers helps them become more comfortable more quickly, she said.

Some CIOs are embedding IT workers in business departments to help educate them on the relationship between IT and business.

James Clent, CIO at United Orthopedic Group, runs a 21-person IT organization, so it's important that most have multiple skill sets.

Clent, whose company manufactures non-invasive orthopedic rehabilitation products, said he can mentor his own team and sees the skills gap as less of a concern than the communications gap between IT and business.

United Orthopedic's IT shop goes as far as to offer free six-week, online business training courses for IT personnel.

"I see my technicians talking to a customer and the customer's eyes glaze over. They don't listen anymore. That's the most important gap I see," he said. "They need to be able to get their message across. Communication is the number one thing to make IT and the business successful."

The business training includes instruction on financial analysis, project management and decision making processes. The online classes let employees learn on their own time or during work breaks. Even if the training makes an employee attractive to other employers, Clent said his shop benefits because it's where they use the new skills first.

"It's an investment I'm willing to make because it delivers so much more value to the company," he said.

Richter said Kimberly-Clark embeds IT employees in business units in 29 countries, where they learn the technology needs of business and make themselves less intimidating to non-technical employees.

The Kimberly-Clark IT staff is also rotated into new job roles for six-month periods to increase cross-training. The key to that program's success is ensuring the workers that they will be returning to their old job.

"A lot of jobs have also disappeared over the years. So folks are afraid to be in that one job role," he said.

Cook Children's Health Care System embeds IT workers in medical departments to increase communications and grease the skids for IT work requests, Meadows said.

For example, hospital departments with embedded IT workers don't need to submit IT requests, they just ask for help.

Since implementing the program, the health care firm's IT department has been atop internal customer satisfaction surveys, she said.

Lucas Mearian covers storage, disaster recovery and business continuity, financial services infrastructure and health care IT for Computerworld. Follow Lucas on Twitter at @lucasmearian, or subscribe to Lucas's RSS feed. His email address is lmearian@computerworld.com.

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This story, "IT skills gap forces CIOs to get creative" was originally published by Computerworld .

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