There’s a rather morbid joke making the rounds of IT shops that’s truer than most IT people would want to admit. It goes like this: In the year 3142, scientists unearth a cryogenically preserved corpse from the early 21st century. After thawing him out and bringing him back to life with their 32nd century technology, they quickly ask him, “You don’t know COBOL, do you?”
Ha. Ha. Seriously, though, it’s starting to dawn on a lot of senior IT executives that some existing software will outlive everyone involved in its current operation. The joke also highlights the issue of the rapidly-approaching retirement of a whole generation of IT professionals. Who will take their places? And, perhaps more worrisome, will companies be able to find people who have the skills needed for the newer technologies like AI and data analytics?
The current and looming IT talent shortage
Labor data in the United States suggests that there is an impending shortage of IT talent. The US Government’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that there were 105,000 unfilled jobs in the Information category as of June, 2019. This number has been trending down in recent months, but it is still high.
At the same time, the BLS projects that employment of computer and information technology occupations will grow 13 percent from 2016 to 2026. This is faster than the average for all occupations. During this time, BLS expects this category will add 557,100 new jobs. The agency cites cloud computing, big data and cyber security as well as information security as the sources of this growth. Industry research mirrors these findings.
A Wall Street Journal survey revealed that more than half of CIOs are worried that their firms don’t have the IT talent they will need to compete. Overall, BLS foresees a deficit of about 1 million Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) workers in the US over the next decade.
Drivers of the IT talent shortage
Why is there a shortage of IT talent affecting business both today and tomorrow? One problem is older IT people are retiring faster than new people can be recruited, hired and trained. Alternatively, the problem is more about matching skills with open positions. As the Wall Street Journal data point and a lot of anecdotal information suggest, it is hard to find IT people with the right skills. There maybe plenty of job applicants, but not enough who truly know how to do data science, for example.
Yet another perspective on the cause of the IT talent shortage relates the difficulty companies have in retaining talent. Turnover is a problem. A company hires an IT professional, but then loses her a few months later to a job paying more. This can be a painful scenario, as the first company has spent money recruiting and training the IT pro, but then loses out. One could argue that they erred by not paying her enough. It’s a balancing act, but the net effect is still a shortage of capable people to do the work.
Impacts of the IT talent shortage
The timing of the IT talent shortage is not good. The IT sector, reflecting trends in the broader business world, is at a moment of great change. Pressure on IT is coming from multiple directions, each of which is made worse by a lack of available talent:
- Mobility—the IT department needs to know how to manage mobile devices en masse, develop (or oversee development of) mobile applications, integrate mobile devices with existing systems and more.
- APIs and digital transformation—application integration using standards-based APIs is critical to digital transformation. IT professionals must know how to handle this relatively new technology.
- Cloud computing—as companies move more IT assets to the cloud, IT professionals have to be versed in cloud admin, cloud migration, hybrid cloud/on-premises architectures and related disciplines.
- Big data—analytics and data visualization, as well as advanced technologies like Artificial Intelligence (AI), are seen as an essential element of corporate competitiveness. IT professionals are expected to know how to make big data and related technologies work for strategic advantage.
- Security—with a worsening threat environment, security teams (often part of IT, but not always) are being called up on to provide robust defenses, intrusion detection, incident response and so forth.
- Legacy—old systems are not going way, in many cases. As experienced legacy system managers retire, a new generation of IT people with Unix, AIX, iSeries and zOS skills are needed to take over.
IT must also still do its core functions of maintaining email and ERP systems, provisioning hardware and so forth. These tasks all require people. The question, though, is whether they require full-time employees or if they can be performed by non-employees.
Solutions for finding the next generation of IT talent
What can be done about the IT talent shortage and its impact on business and the IT department? The positive news is that c-level IT managers have a number of options when it comes to solving this problem. One model that’s becoming more attractive is to bring a number of different solutions together all at once. For example, some companies are focusing on hiring highly-skilled professionals in certain key IT areas, but relying on contractors and other outsourced options for the balance of the IT work.
The advantages of this approach are many. For one thing, it limits the stress and expense of recruiting and retaining IT talent. It keeps budgets down, overall, while allowing external sources of IT talent to handle the recruiting and hiring of IT people. There are several ways to realize this model. One is known as “insourcing,” where an outside firm places employees inside the offices of its client form.
Outsourcing is the opposite, where IT contractors work remotely, sometimes from a foreign country. This is called “offshoring,” though in some cases the client prefers what is coming to known as “near-shoring,” where foreign IT workers are actually located in the United States. The potential downsides of outsourcing and insourcing are possible skills deficits and a lack of continuity in service from people who are assigned on a per-project basis.
Yet another approach to alleviating the IT talent shortage is to work with technology that simply requires less human involvement. The public cloud is a great example of this. By migrating software and data to AWS or Microsoft Azure, a company is effectively outsourcing a huge amount of the hardware, network and infrastructure management they would have to deal with on-premises.
Cloud-based software similarly reduces the need for having IT professionals on the payroll. The cloud-based software vendor is responsible for having the staff on hand to deal with version control, patching, updates and so forth. Even cyber security is moving to this model, with Managed Security Service Providers (MSSPs) taking on the labor-intensive work of security administration, monitoring and incident response.
The IT talent shortage is real. The next generation of IT professionals is out there, though they may be hard to find, recruit and retain. Fortunately, alternatives to staffing up are becoming more viable and financially attractive. Outsourcing, insourcing and off-shoring have matured in recent years. IT departments can get the services they need with few tradeoffs in work quality or business support. At the same time, the emergence of sophisticated cloud solutions now makes it possible to offload much of the people-intensive work that used to be necessary to run systems on premises.