Blame CIOs for the IT Skills Shortage

By Allan Alter  |  Posted 03-05-2008

CIOs keep complaining that they can't find workers with the skills they need. In fact, two recent surveys on top issues among IT executives--one from the Society for Information Management and another by Robert Half Associates--rank finding skilled IT professionals as the No. 1 issue.

Many IT executives gripe that universities are not producing a stream of IT graduates who are prepared to function in the business world. Some worry about the unflattering image of technical professionals as socially awkward. But no one is more to blame for the skills shortage than CIOs, especially those at large companies. The reality is that IT executives are creating the skills shortage they grumble about.

If companies were serious about ending the skills shortage, they would make more investments in IT training. A new CompTIA survey of technology managers on skills gaps in the IT workforce found that sending employees for external professional training is the most frequently cited way to enhance IT employees' skills.

However, spending on external training is merely inching up at most large companies. While our February 2008 IT Spending Survey found that companies with revenues below $500 million increased spending on tech training services by 7.2 percent, larger companies increased it by only 2.8 percent.

Why are large companies loath to make the needed investments? For one thing, there's the risk that employees could accept training and then take jobs at other companies. But that's a controllable risk: If a company is a well-managed, interesting place to work, most technical workers will be content to stay. The real issue is that many companies aren't interested in keeping IT professionals for a long stretch of time.

Information systems professors Thomas Ferratt of the University of Dayton and Ritu Agarwal of the University of Maryland have found that companies follow different IT HR strategies. One approach is to develop IT staff members for the long term, emphasizing career development and commitment to employees. Companies that follow this approach are more likely to have adequate IT staffing levels and lower turnover rates.

But the larger the company is, the less likely it is to follow this approach: The June 2007 CIO Insight survey on recruitment and retention discovered that only around one-quarter of companies with revenue topping $1 billion take this approach, compared with more than half of firms between $5 million and $99 million.

Instead, many large companies regard IT workers as disposable: They're willing to pay top dollar for talent, but then drop these workers when they're no longer needed. Many billion-dollar corporations pay little attention to career issues: Just 42 percent of these large organizations do a good job of creating specific career paths for members of their IT organizations, our research reveals. At smaller firms, the number is around 60 percent.

There's a three-part solution to the skill shortage: One, no matter how the economy affects your firm, increase training for employees. Two, when recruiting from outside your company, be willing to interview capable IT professionals, even if their skills aren't a perfect match for the job. Three, be willing to provide new hires with technical training.

So stop griping about the skill shortage, broaden your searches and start creating the skilled workforce your company needs.