The current gap
Weinman is one of several employment experts who say they see a clear gap between the talent that employers are seeking and the talent that's available. "It's very difficult to find people who have deep skills in security on mobile devices, infrastructure, network security, advanced persistent threats or mainframe skills," he says. "People who have those skills are becoming a smaller percentage of the overall population."
Suzanne Fairlie is also hearing how difficult it is to find people with certain skills -- but she says the gap involves a different set of skills. Fairlie, president of ProSearch, a nationwide executive search company with a strong focus on CIO placement, took a back-of-the-envelope survey of 12 CIOs with whom she has worked recently.
"To a person, everybody validated that there is a gap," she says. But it's not necessarily a gap in deep technical skills; it primarily involves the strategic skills that managers are increasingly demanding of everyone in their departments.
The list includes "business analysis skills, relationship skills, understanding the value of IT to the organization, navigating internal politics," says Fairlie. "Those are hard to come by, and yet, they're so essential."
Jack Cullen, president of Modis, a global provider of IT staffing services, concurs. "In today's marketplace, if you have good references and a strong technical skill set and can communicate how you'll provide ROI, four jobs will be waiting for you," he says.
What amazes, and to some degree frustrates, Cullen are those instances when clients choose not to hire a job applicant because they can't check every box on their wish lists. "We're seeing this huge pent-up demand, and the pool of labor isn't growing. And yet, what's perplexing is just how specific hiring managers still are," he says. "They want this skill, that particular work on the network side, certifications, this many years of experience. Companies are not willing to take a risk. Nobody's jumping out the window to hire the average employee."
Weinman blames the Great Recession for starting IT down the path that led to the skills gap, while cautioning that an improved economy won't much ease the crunch for many workers.
"Companies are getting leaner and leaner. Starting in 2008, they downsized and streamlined, and they haven't replaced those positions," he observes. "If you're the hiring director of one of these very lean teams, you want only A+ workers. In the past, someone could get away with being a solid middle-of-the-road employee. Not anymore."
Charles Williams sees the situation from both sides. As manager of data systems at Georgia System Operations, an electric utility in Tucker, Ga., he wants and expects the people who report to him (currently there are seven) to keep their skills up to date. At the same time, he acknowledges that he is challenged to keep his own knowledge fresh when day-to-day duties take priority over opportunities to investigate up-and-coming technologies.
"In a way, it's natural for a manager to develop a technical skills gap. We're not able to sit down and play with things the way our employees might," he says. And that worries him. "I feel like I need to know a lot about the different job skills in my department," he adds. "I need to understand at a deep technical level what my employees are talking about."
Cutbacks in training and travel haven't helped Williams or his employees in their quest to stay relevant. "It's been a mixed bag because of the recession, but we're starting to see that turn around," he says. Upper management is beginning to loosen the restrictions on training, especially in the area of security.