This feature first appeared in the Winter 2017 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.
I've worked in information technology (IT) and training for almost 40 years. During that time, IT has evolved from a useful component of overall business operations, typically handled by small groups of highly technical experts, into an absolutely essential aspect of all successful companies. In 2017, it's almost impossible to find an employee who doesn't use technology on the job.
Sadly, there is a much-noted shortfall between the IT expertise that is sorely needed in the marketplace and the skills that incoming employees already possess. Industry observers call this phenomenon the "skills gap," and most believe it is getting larger by the day. More than half of employers in all industries report that it's increasingly difficult to find and retain quality IT-savvy employees.
There are three primary factors that cause trouble when it comes to filling IT positions: lack of technical skills, lack of experience, and lack of soft skills. The bottom line is that there just aren't enough properly trained individuals to fill all the IT jobs available. And the problematic lack of workers just keeps getting bigger.
The IT skills gap is most prominent in the areas of information security, data center management, Big Data, and cloud computing. Without individuals to fill jobs in these important areas, organizations are unable to serve their customers and regularly miss out on opportunities to expand into new markets. A recent CompTIA survey of 500 IT and business managers found that IT skill deficiencies negatively impacted "productivity, customer service, security, innovation, speed to market and profitability."
Clearly there is a pressing demand for employees who are trained and qualified in IT. Here are six things employers can do to get the skilled IT people they need:
Communicate the skills gap
The first step toward solving a problem is defining it. Make sure that you understand and clearly define the IT needs of your organization. Take pains to communicate to present and potential employees the skills needed to be successful on the job. It doesn't make sense to hire someone who doesn't have the right skills to do the job — if cloud security is the issue, hiring an app developer isn't going to help.
By clearly defining job roles and specifying needed skills, organizations can help present and future employees better understand what they need to do to succeed. That understanding will ensure that they get the right training and certifications to succeed. An employee who understands that, without the right skills he will lose his job, is an employee motivated to develop those skills.
Ask for certifications, not just degrees
Colleges and universities tend to have an innate reluctance to embrace new approaches academically. Many computer degree programs remain focused on teaching yesterday's programming languages and platforms. As a result, graduates enter the workforce skilled in yesterday's tech and embracing yesterday's solutions.
IT is a rapidly evolving field, and the best way to stay current on new developments and tech is with certifications. Certification vendors are successful because they update their training to cover the most recent advances. Employees with certifications from trusted vendors have the skills to do the job from day one, without the need for additional training.
Foster employee creativity
Google is known for nurturing employee creativity. Google employees can spend up to 20 percent of work hours on special projects unrelated to their jobs. Management believes this enables employees to learn quicker and be more creative. They may be on to something, because this practice has led to the creation of many of Google's new products.
Companies can offer IT employees who perform well time to work in company areas outside of their job responsibilities. Doing so fosters greater communication between groups, leads to faster learning and acquisition of new skills, and can contribute to increased problem solving as new minds deal with established procedures and problems.
Get a ��farm team'
Sports leagues use farm teams to foster the development of future stars. IT companies can do likewise by sponsoring internships for students and holding contests that require participants to demonstrate IT knowledge and skills.
The U.S. Department of Defense DARPA Robotics Challenge is a great example — teams from around the world compete to create robots capable of completing an obstacle course while solving a number of intricate challenges. This helps the military identify up-and-coming talent while taking advantage of technological breakthroughs.
Another possibility is to allow IT workers to teach or help out at local schools. Everybody likes to be thought of as an expert, and being in the schools exposes workers to younger people with an interest in IT.
Develop in-house talent
Searching for and hiring skilled talent is expensive and time-consuming. It's easier to identify existing employees who have the desire to learn and grow in their responsibilities. Also, since existing employees already fit into your workplace culture, it's less likely that you will make an unproductive hire.
Companies that develop talent, by taking steps such as being willing to pay for employees to earn certifications, are seen as valuing potential. Employees who feel needed and are rewarded with training on new tech and pay advances are less likely to wind up looking for better opportunities elsewhere.
IT professionals don't have to be young. There is a large segment of the population looking to continue working beyond retirement. Studies show that individuals who fall into this bracket of so-called "senior talent" are living longer, are more active, and are willing to extend their working lives.
They also tend to show more loyalty to an employer, have less absenteeism, and possess valuable soft skills — like the ability to work in teams, or the ability to communicate effectively — that younger workers often lack. Many of these seasoned individuals are willing to learn IT skills and understand the effort required. Certification programs are a great way to bring them along the IT curve.
Not all certs are created equal. Some certifications require little more than regurgitation of memorized lists of questions and answers. The more effective certifications are those that require students to complete hands-on tasks via detailed simulations.
Students who learn IT skills in this manner not only know what to do, but have gained experience actually doing it. There is a big difference between learning something in class and actually doing it in a work-like environment.
Don't stand idly looking on
The fight against functional ignorance is real. The IT skills gap is widening by the day. Companies can help close this gap by implementing these simple steps. By proactively responding, employers will see greater gains in productivity, efficiency and customer service. And along the way they will gain employees who are happier, loyal and more skilled.