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Is there really an IT skills gap? If so, how to fix it?

by Ed Tittel

There is ample debate about the IT skills gap. But if there is one, we can start to fill it through investing in employee training and developing an employee pipeline.

If the projections of labor economists bear fruit, IT operations around the globe face a looming crisis. It’s often called the IT skills gap. The term reflects a limited supply of trained and qualified professionals who have the skills and knowledge to occupy specific technical and management positions in IT. The problem isn’t that there aren’t enough warm bodies available to fill open positions. The problem is that those who are available lack the qualifications to fill these positions. The aim of this article is to suggest ways for organizations to surmount this problem and leapfrog the so-called “IT skills gap.”

CompTIA cites a “widening skills gap” between “expected performance and what workers can . . . deliver.” The MIT Technology Review emphasizes that the “focus should be on coordination and communication between workers and employers.” In fact, that story finds that persistent hiring problems are less widespread than many claim and that some hiring challenges are unrelated to the presence or absence of a skills gap. That said, ongoing needs for technical and soft skills development can create the perception that such a gap exists and needs to be filled. And if we concede this perception is at least somewhat accurate, then how can we fill this gap? The answer lies in cultivating an employee pipeline.

Why hybrid cloud positions are vulnerable to skills gaps

Cybersecurity skills are often cited as the area with the greatest gaps. But in fact there are other IT disciplines suffering similarly. Consider cloud computing, including skills in areas such as cloud management, network virtualization, containerization, and more. Cloud roles require skills and knowledge to integrate and interoperate between private and public cloud platforms and technologies (that is, hybrid or multi-clouds) in particular.

This is not so much a matter of lack of supply as it is a matter of time and opportunity on the job in which to gain the experience, skills, and knowledge necessary to bring complex, hybrid cloud or multicloud scenarios to life. Cloud computing professionals must learn the tools and platforms to develop the skills and knowledge necessary. But, in fact, the number of already trained workers is small enough to make them hard to find and costly to retain.

Looking for Mr. or Ms. Goodbar

If the labor force doesn’t have the skills without being trained on the job, hiring recent graduates of higher education programs doesn’t solve the problem, either. Hiring out of school for such people means going after master’s or Ph.D. graduates, preferably those with meaningful hands-on experience (read: internship). Hiring from the ranks of the already employed often requires poaching from competitors.

Such searches can be time-consuming as well as resource- and cost-intensive. In fact, only when dire necessity requires finding an employee ready to hit the ground running does it make sense to actively start a search without leads. It’s better to maintain active participation in vendor and supplier conferences, training and certification programs, plus related cloud computing trade and industry groups to have access to a pipeline of trained professionals with the right skills and knowledge. In fact, trainers, sales and support staff, and technical evangelists make good prospects themselves. But they also know lots of other people in other organizations with the right skills and knowledge, too. Over time, one can use careful observation, personal networking skills, and a carefully maintained collection of contacts to get the word out that a hybrid cloud position may be opening soon.

Creating a farm team system

Even better, from the standpoint of effective use of human capital, is to systematically promote employee development within your own organization. When it comes to filling cloud computing positions, especially for roles that involve hybrid or multicloud use cases, this involves promoting from within the IT organization. Your organization can create the necessary employee pipelines by offering – or even requiring – continuing education and employee development training. It’s important to see help desk and support staff not just as important cogs in today’s machine for service delivery, but as even more important senior staff in other roles in the future. The only way to get to this tomorrow is to hire entry-level staff as much for their ability to learn and interest in learning new things as it is for the whatever current portfolio of technical skills and knowledge they might already possess.

Even outside the IT department, other organizational units often find people who develop a strong interest or flair for computing, programming, systems administration, and so forth. Such people may be valuable where they are. But these workers may also be more valuable if encouraged to transition into an IT role, and more valuable still in the future if they train and advance into more senior positions. This creates another important employee pipeline to help keep the ranks of IT workers fully staffed, and interested in adopting and making best use of emerging technologies as they come along.

Nurturing IT skills and talent

If an organization invests in its current employees, it can gain by exploiting their knowledge of the culture, the business, and the technologies in use, even for employees who might transition from accounting or product development into IT. The important thing is to recognize the kinds of skills and knowledge that IT employees need and to give them the chance to train on the job in new areas. Encouraging employees to learn and develop skills is good, and should include training for both technical skills as well as business, leadership and other soft skills (the latter become increasingly important as employees’ tenure in any organization increases).

In sum, on-the-job training can enhance the business by capitalizing on employees’ knowledge of the business as they acquire new skills. It also fuels an engaged workforce that can stretch and grow while adding to the business. But best of all is making a conscious decision to offer opportunities and to reward those who excel when they grasp them. All in all, the IT skills gap is an opportunity to develop an employee pipeline as you develop new IT needs and requirements in your business.

For more on this topic, check out our hybrid cloud strategy guide.

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Ed Tittel

Ed Tittel is a 30-plus year IT veteran who's worked as a developer, networking consultant, technical trainer, writer and expert witness. Perhaps best known for the Exam Cram series of IT cert prep books, Tittel has contributed to more than 100 titles on computing topics, including information security, Windows OSes and HTML.