The Business of IT Blog

The IT Skill Gap Explained

Stephen Watts
by Stephen Watts
5 minute read

Both employees and leaders in the IT field are familiar with the IT skills gap. For digital enterprises today, IT not only supports the business – it often is the business. The IT skills gap illustrates that companies sometimes have a difficult time finding, hiring, and retaining employees with the IT skills they need, to ensure quality products.

Industry experts are split. Some argue that the IT skills gap doesn’t exist (in the United States, at least). More experts, however, argue that the gap exists, though to varying degrees. Either way, the biggest concern is how companies address these current issues in the short-term to ensure that they don’t grow into larger issues down the road.

In this article, we’re examining the IT skills gap – how it exists today and what we can do to improve the situation.

Defining Skills Gaps and IT Skills

Forbes defines a skills gap as the difference between what companies need or want their employees to do and what employees are actually able to do. A skills gap can apply to any skills area: hard skills like sales, business, finance, and IT, as well as soft skills like interpersonal communication and time management.

As IT has become the backbone of business in the 21st century, IT skills include an ever-broadening set of skills. IT skills can include general operations and systems knowledge and communication required to run a help desk, programming in a seemingly endless number of languages, and managing IT personnel in any number of IT philosophies, such as agile and DevOps.

When we talk about the IT skills gap, needed skills vary widely based on different companies’ needs as well as the needs of specific jobs within one company.

Causes of Today’s IT Skills Gap

A 2017 Forbes report on IT service management says that C-level executive report a lack of IT skills as the biggest issue in aligning IT with business services. Many CIOs report that the IT skills gap applies to employees and candidates within the higher echelon of their IT teams. Leaders are able to staff and retain help desk and entry- and mid-level programmers, but as technology silos narrow down evermore into special areas, companies say it’s harder to find enough people with the precise qualifications needed.

Industry insiders cite many reasons for this IT skills gap, including:

  • The demand is increasing. As companies need to both maintain and optimize ever increasing technology, they need more people to support this mission.
  • The supply is decreasing. Jobs in IT grew by 13 percent between 2002 and 2013, yet those who graduated with IT degrees shrunk by 11 percent over the same period.
  • The need for IT is spreading. Early on, only traditional businesses were implementing technology. Today, however, industries beyond business require vast amount of IT, especially education and healthcare.
  • The way we learn IT skills is changing. More people are re-tooling outside of traditional degree-granting colleges and universities, opting instead for short-term, intensive developer boot camps that provide the hard IT skills, but leaving this population short of degrees. This lack of a formal degree may mean that without a specific degree, some companies are missing out on this talent pool. Further, the boot camps focus primarily on programming skills – and considerably less time on business know-how, which could affect a candidate’s soft skills for a position.
  • The specialization within IT is double-edged. With IT booming, candidates can specialize in just one or two areas. But, companies who require too narrow or specific a specialization will often come at the expense of a candidate with broader technology and business knowledge.
  • The reliance on IT as an emergency responder continues. Despite companies continuing to transition towards a proactive IT and business approach, IT still acts as emergency responders too often. Many organizations continue to spend a majority of their budget on maintenance instead of on project development, innovation, and improving the organization’s competitiveness.

The Severity of the IT Skills Gap

While there is a significant amount of agreement around the existence of the IT skills gap, opponents point to the current unemployment rate in the U.S., under 5% in Q4 of 2017, as some proof that the IT skills gap either can’t exist or can’t be as serious as some argue.

Indeed, whether the skills gap is industry-threatening or merely one of many issues facing businesses today depends significantly on who you are. A recent TEK Systems study surveyed more than 1,300 leaders and professionals in IT in the U.S. Interestingly, leaders and those working in the field share some beliefs on the IT skills gap. Variations among them, however, may illustrate lack of understanding, lack of communication, or lack of standardization.

Across the board, more than 75% of those surveyed agreed that the perceived IT skills gap is real. They further agree that only one-third of companies have the talent in-house to meet their IT needs.

But, compared to IT professionals, leadership believes that this gap has a significant negative impact. This could be due to their macro view, which often underscores negatives more than positives. Perhaps some leaders have diverging understandings of what IT does and what IT needs.

This bears out further in comparing responses to why candidates and open IT positions don’t match. More than half of surveyed IT leaders reported unqualified candidate pools (similarly, candidate pools that don’t align to business needs), small pools of candidates, and budgetary constraints – preventing them from hiring more ideal candidates.

At the same time, surveyed IT professionals reported that many job requirements are unrealistic, and that company’s expectations do not align with compensation budgets. Of the IT professionals surveyed, 41% further reported that the experience and/or expertise that companies demand is too niche.

Interestingly, while some blame a lack of extensive education, only a quarter of IT professionals currently at work in the field agree.

The severity of the IT skills gap is also illustrated in the impact on IT teams. Seventy-one percent of IT leaders surveyed reported decreased efficiency, and 63% of IT workers agree. The reasons for this inefficiency? Leaders see that it negatively affects project completion and time-to-market 69% of the time, while professionals say this is an issue only half the time.

Remedying the IT skills gap

Without a strategic plan for the IT workforce, companies will continue having difficulties finding quality IT candidates. When positions go unfilled, there is the immediate impact of inefficiency, but there’s collateral damage, too. Decreased employee morale leads towards attrition. This means companies risk losing existing talent.

So, what measures are companies taking to fix this gap?

Surveyed companies rarely have a long-term strategic workforce plan, but more than half of them reported short-term fixes including training and developing the current workforce, outsourcing current projects, and increasing the use of contract/temporary workers.

There was a major drop-off when it came to employee benefits, with only one-third of companies investing in education, 26% offering flexible hours and telecommuting options, and a mere 9% offering more lucrative compensation packages.

Longer-term, companies need to adapt new practices to both attract new and retain existing talent. Indeed, communication is a major issue, and the perceived differences between IT leaders and works indicates this. There is little clarity around hiring: why one candidate was chosen over another, or what a candidate was lacking that he could then improve upon. Until this feedback loop is closed, the skills gap cannot be bridged.

There’s also a lack of standardization. Surely, a majority of jobs in the IT sector fall within a certain range: help desk, entry- and mid-level programmers, high-end programmers, security specialists, management with programming experience, etc. With consensus general job titles, candidates can better prepare for the industry. Further, when jobs are standardized to a realistic extent, job descriptions themselves can sound more realistic, instead of the big-ticket wish list many read as now. This will help candidates find “perfectly good” candidates for a position instead of the one “perfect” candidate.

For most companies, this talent gap is self-inflicted. Addressing the skills gap will take time, but by planning strategically and increasing communication, clarity, and standardization in job expectations, candidates can better prepare.

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

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About the author

Stephen Watts

Stephen Watts

Stephen is based in Birmingham, AL and began working at BMC Software in 2012. Stephen holds a degree in Philosophy from Auburn University and is currently enrolled in the MS in Information Systems - Enterprise Technology Management program at University of Colorado Denver.

Stephen contributes to a variety of publications including, Search Engine Journal, ITSM.Tools, IT Chronicles, DZone, and CompTIA.