How to Solve the IT Skills Shortage: 4 Tips for Technologists and Organizations

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Today’s IT departments face a variety of challenges: the shift from “keeping the lights on” to enabling the digital enterprise; managing and maximizing cloud, mobile, and big data; and of course, IT’s old standby, meeting growing demands with less budget. But one of IT’s biggest challenges stems not from technology, but from people. CIOs can’t find the skills they need at the scale they need them.

Our recent survey with Forbes on the state of IT service management in 2017 made the impact and reach of this skills shortage very clear. “IT skills” topped the list of issues cited as the greatest challenge to aligning IT to business services, with more than a third of respondents selecting it as a barrier to success. The second most prevalent challenge, “understanding of core business services,” faces more than a third of respondents as well. This represents the same problem in a different way. If understanding core business services isn’t a necessary skill for today’s IT professionals, I don’t know what is.

What’s driving the IT skills shortage?

Why has the IT skills shortage become so dramatic in recent years? In short, IT must now maintain and optimize more technology, that’s more important to the business, faster than ever before. This transformation puts tremendous strain on IT teams. A full 50 percent of our survey respondents shared that they need more training and skills development to keep up. Forty-one percent feel that their staff resources are stretched too thin, while 37 percent struggle with turning around projects and outputs at a much faster rate.

IT also faces a supply-and-demand issue. While IT jobs grew by 13 percent from 2002 to 2013, the number of people who graduated with IT degrees was 11 percent lower in 2013 than in 2002. This decline is attributed to the growth of other fields competing for technology experts, like health care and education, and by the rise of informal programs versus traditional academic settings, like developer bootcamps. While graduates of those programs aren’t necessarily unsuited for enterprise technology positions, the gap remains concerning.

The problem lies with quality as well as quantity. As IT has proliferated into a seemingly endless web of new infrastructures, applications, and functionality, technologists in school and at work have been forced to specialize. There is simply no way to know it all – or even come close. IT professionals therefore focus on a very specific sphere of IT at the expense of broad technical or business understanding.

This situation is exacerbated by the fact that most IT departments, in spite of all the focus on business transformation, still spend much of their time fighting fires. Our survey found that 37 percent of organizations spend the majority of their budgets on ongoing maintenance and management, and a full three out of four executives agree that the amount of time, money, and resources spent on ongoing maintenance and management versus new project development or new initiatives is affecting the overall competitiveness of their organization. IT professionals are already stuck in their silos; the need to stay there, fighting fires, makes it even worse.

In this environment, it’s no surprise that IT leaders need a different and more dynamic set of skills than ever before, and more of them. But what exactly are those skills, and how can technologists acquire them?

Four skills every technologist needs – and how to get them

The most in-demand skills for IT professionals span technical and business acumen. They include:

  1. Breadth of technical expertise. Organizations need technologists who can think beyond one specific application, language, etc. Broad technical understanding benefits IT teams immediately, as technologists can apply their knowledge in more than one place and bring information and insight to a variety of projects. But perhaps more importantly, it provides IT professionals with the foundation to quickly learn and adapt to new technologies in the future.

    Organizations can encourage broader understanding by investing in training opportunities outside an employee’s immediate area of responsibility. Internships early in technologists’ careers help introduce students and young professionals to different disciplines, while implementing programs that enable cross-departmental moves can open up new opportunities to existing employees. IT professionals should find and pursue opportunities to expand their knowledge, formally or informally. That may involve an intensive training program, or sharing tips and tricks with friends over beers. Both work to broaden your base.
  2. Focus on standardization. To counteract the fragmentation brought on by today’s complex technical landscape, the IT industry as a whole and its employees must move toward greater standardization. When we all speak the same language, it’s far easier to apply skills in more and different ways. For IT professionals, that means undertaking certification and training programs that provide the education and the proof that you understand foundational, standardized technologies. For organizations, it means giving your employees the means to participate in those programs regularly and incentivizing their completion.
  3. Solid business sense. It sounds obvious, but until recently, technologists could often get away with operating only within their technical bubble. That’s no longer the case. As evidenced by our survey results cited above, CIOs need IT teams that can not only handle the tech, but understand how their projects and solutions impact the business.

    Engineers and developers don’t need to get MBAs, but do need to be able to clearly see and articulate how technology fits into greater business plans and objectives. That means learning or polishing up on basic business concepts and honing the ability to speak with business people without not sounding like an old-school “propeller head.” The ability to translate technical concepts into business language and benefits is key here.
  4. Out-of-the-box attitude. That solid business sense should be bolstered by agile, unique, and innovative ways of thinking and doing. The best IT professionals bring new ideas to the table along with recommendations for how to make them happen. Organizations often turn to younger employees for this perspective, but it certainly is not limited to millennials. For any technologist, proving your ability to thrive in today’s environment is often as easy as sharing the “crazy” ideas that you used to keep to yourself.

    Agility isn’t something you’re necessarily born with. IT professionals can boost their fresh factor by staying up to date on the latest trends and technology, actively participating in online and in-person events, forums, and meet-ups, and raising their hands to take on new projects. Organizations can foster innovation within IT teams by designating a set amount of time for moonshots and rewarding attempts, whether they are successful or not. Culture makes a big difference, too. When employees know that it’s not only safe, but encouraged to go out on a limb, organizations reap the benefits.

CIOs need IT teams that can keep up with the pace and demands of today’s enterprise, at both the technology and business levels. While more IT graduates may solve the quantity part of the skills shortage equation, new and current IT professionals must also hone their skills to deliver the combination of inspiration and education their business needs to stand apart.

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These postings are my own and do not necessarily represent BMC's position, strategies, or opinion.

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Stephen Watts

Stephen Watts

Stephen Watts is an IT marketing professional based in Birmingham, AL. Stephen began working at BMC in 2012 and focuses on creating best-in-class web content.