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Closing the IT skills gap: Investing in staff development and training

Companies want to charge ahead with new technologies to grow. But the IT skills gap can block progress. 

As companies strive to innovate and make quick turns in the new digital economy, they can run up against a difficult problem. While they have brought in technology to move faster and innovate, they may lack the IT skills in-house to manage that infrastructure.

This is the “IT skills gap”: an increasing demand for employees skilled in high-demand technical subject areas, despite the fact that the supply of such people is growing ever scarcer. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, overall employment in computer and information technology occupations is projected to grow by 13% between 2016 and 2026. At the same time, certain roles remain difficult to fill: According to Cisco 2017 data, cybersecurity will have 1.8 million unfilled jobs by 2022 in the USA alone.

Companies see the impact of this IT skills gap as well. Indeed, according to a recent CompTIA survey “Assessing the IT skills gap,” 46% of companies say that there is such a gap. And 44% are actively hiring to address such gaps in the workforce.

Training and employee development to the rescue

Staff training and development can fill this gap. It also provides employees with a path to maintaining technical currency and a portfolio of skills. Organizations can maintain technical relevance and build skills sets for the future.

Employees know that training in high-demand, high-value areas enhances employability while also providing enhanced skills to employers. As long as organizations are willing to invest in ongoing development to help their best talent succeed, it creates a strong win-win scenario that benefits employers and employees alike. Employees are especially keen on moving into areas where opportunities abound, and understand that they will benefit from participation. This goes double when training can lead them into high-demand, high-potential positions and responsibilities.

Employers should consider key KSAs (knowledge, skills, and abilities) as well as so-called “soft skills.” IT employees can also benefit from training and development in technical, written and oral communica­tions, and in project and people management. Well-rounded employees not only understand and use technology but can communicate with others about its business benefits .A well-designed training program will attend to soft skills, as well as technical curricula.

Getting the right combination of technical, business and soft skills

The question becomes how to get training in the right areas. Here are some ideas, and some good places to get started.

First, training is more accessible than it used to be. Massively Open Online Courses, are reshaping the training landscape. Check out the MOOC Search engine at MOOCse.com to find thousands of course offerings on all the following topics. Employees of companies with tight budgets can audit for free (though costs for credit on those courses is often quite reasonable as well). Search major online course providers directly, too: these include edX, Udacity, Coursera, Udemy, Khan Academy, Codeacademy, and many others.

  • Artificial intelligence/machine learning. The MOOCs rule in this space with offerings available from numerous leading computer science programs including MIT, Columbia, University of Pennsylvania, Cal Tech, and more. Microsoft and other major vendors also have significant offerings in this area. See this MOOCse search for specific links.
  • Big data/data analytics/business intelligence.Academy and industry work together and separately with gusto and abandon. MOOCse offerings abound, with vendor-sponsored offerings as numerous, various and interesting as academic courses. Major vendors include Microsoft, SAS Institute, SAP, Amazon Web Services, and the major online training players.
  • Software-defined networking and network programmability. MOOCse offerings are many and varied, with vendor-neutral and vendor-specific coverage in abundance and varied. Cisco has built out its SDN and network programming education as well.
  • Virtualization and related topics (data center networking, storage, containers, and more): All the major vendors have offerings in this space, including Cisco, Microsoft, Red Hat, OpenStack, and many more. There’s no shortage of MOOCse offerings here, either. Start with a virtualization platform or topic, and begin your search from there.
  • Software development. With rapid and constant change and ferment affecting all programming skills, online training is a go-to source for learning new languages, platforms, development tools and techniques. MOOCse offerings abound. In this area, coding academies, boot camps, and so forth are worthwhile for hands-on training.
  • Soft skills. This category includes verbal, presentation and written communication, project and people management, business and budgetary skills. To develop well-rounded, capable employees, a soft skills component is essential. In addition to MOOCse offerings, companies and organizations should look to training from the American Management Association (AMA) and from major training outlets such as Learning Tree, New Horizons, Global Knowledge, Skillsoft, and so forth.

If you don’t monitor it, you can’t manage it

The most effective staff development and training programs establish clear goals and objectives. Employees should understand what’s expected of them, which goals and objectives to pursue, and the benefits they can garner.

Many organizations have found that a learning management system (LMS) helps in delivering, tracking, and understanding learning and staff development investments. An LMS provides access to learning materials, labs, and study aids of all kinds. It also tracks employee activities and accomplishments as they work on courses and activities. A good LMS will include ongoing, regular assessments of skills and knowledge to document learning and accomplishments and to provide input on areas that need improvement.

Managers, executives, and HR and learning professionals can use an LMS to monitor overall learning activity and uptake, and to help develop a clear understanding of returns on learning investments.

Staff retention pays dividends

Given the looming IT skills gap, a well-researched and supported staff development and training program can pay off in many and various ways. First and foremost, it offers organizations a powerful tool for attracting and retaining star employees. It also provides clear evidence to employees that they can be groomed for high-value, high-demand positions. Because training an existing employee is often faster and less expensive than finding, recruiting and onboarding new hires, staff development and training pay dividends in faster time to attaining acceptable productivity, along with a better understanding of corporate culture and ways of doing things that new hires must often learn by trial and error.

Strong, well-managed organizations know that their success and profitability rests in large part on the shoulders of their employees. Those who understand how to cultivate and develop those employees will improve their odds of remaining both successful and profitable for the long haul.

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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.