The ticking talent time bomb in IT

(“In Case You Missed It Monday” is my chance to showcase something that I wrote and published in another venue, but is still relevant. This week’s post was co-written with my fellow Head-Geek Thomas LaRock, and originally appeared on SC Magazine UK)

The IT industry’s talent shortage presents a unique challenge to the industry. It’s a problem for now but, arguably, a worsening one for the future. The skills gap is already an issue — but as businesses of all kinds increasingly centre their operations around IT and the demands of technology grow, a much larger number will feel the strain.

The industry gets this—you just need to look to a recent Gartner survey to understand the gravity of the issue facing us. The survey found that the global talent shortage is now the top emerging risk for IT organisations. To put this into perspective, in the same survey conducted in Q4 of last year, IT organisations ranked accelerating privacy regulation and cloud computing in the top spots. This dramatic shift within a relatively short time highlights just how quickly this is hurtling to the top of the industry’s agenda.

It’s a ticking time bomb. Right now, the large demand for IT solutions and support can’t be catered to by an industry increasingly stretched and lacking in talent. This disparity in supply and demand will only widen as IT becomes increasingly critical to driving business value—causing demand to grow. Part of that means that IT pros are required to acquire new skills to manage emerging tech like edge, cloud computing and IoT—a pressure they’re not ready to face.

In fact, the SolarWinds IT Trends Report 2019, Skills for Tech Pros of Tomorrow, showed that 70 percent of surveyed UK IT professionals said they didn’t feel confident in their skills to successfully manage their IT environments over the next three to five years. Whatever the skills needed for tomorrow; IT pros don’t feel they have them.

A blast radius beyond the industry perimeter

As the skills gap widens, the talent time bomb ticks. Some might feel this is an issue confined solely to the IT industry, but they couldn’t be more wrong. When the bomb goes off—industries of all kinds will be affected.

Let’s take security as a prime example. The Enterprise Strategy Group (ESG) recently surveyed 267 cyber-security professionals to find out how the IT skills shortage is affecting their job. Seventy percent said the shortage had indeed affected their organisation. Of those, 66 percent said this has increased workloads and 47 percent said their ability to learn and use new security technologies has been hindered. 

This is where the IT skills gap translates into, potentially very grave consequences. Ensuring IT networks are sufficiently monitored and protected isn’t just a concern for the IT industry—it’s the concern of every business looking to avoid the catastrophic consequences of a data breach or ransomware attack. Burned out from increased workloads or ill-equipped to leverage the latest and greatest in cybersecurity technology, IT professionals will struggle to protect their organisations.  

Defusing before it detonates

So, what can be done to defuse the talent time bomb? At this point, the fact that we have a problem is a rallying cry of consensus, so raising awareness isn’t good enough anymore. And it’s an issue with ramifications beyond just the IT industry and the industry needs to tackle the problem soon. 

Partnering with the education sector to offer coding workshops, mentoring programmes, and specialist courses is essential if we’re to help students better understand the career opportunities IT presents. IT increasingly requires an array of skills—not all of which can be fulfilled if we’re only hiring from a pool of Computer Science graduates. These critical skills will come via multiple career routes—something we recognised when SolarWinds launched an apprenticeship scheme with Edinburgh Napier university last year. 

But what about fixes for now? Evaluating procurement practices is a good place to start. IT departments often overlook the importance of “soft skills.” It’s a term I take issue with because the “soft skills” label inherently suggests these are less important. So much of the job comes down to negotiation, problem solving, leadership—qualities that can be harvested from many more academic and non-academic backgrounds than purely IT. 

But the damage inflicted by bias against certain skill sets is outweighed by unconscious biases against entire populations. If you or your company find yourself saying “We would love to hire more _____ into IT, but we can’t find any,” that’s implicit proof something about your company—your hiring practices, your reputation—is unwelcoming to those groups of people. You only need to spend a few minutes on social media, or at a global technical convention, to recognise there are plenty of people with solid IT skills from every ethnicity, culture, gender, and disability. 

The IT skills gap isn’t going away anytime soon. The good news is industries of all types are rightly concerned and working to close the gap, albeit slowly. But if we continue to work at this pace, organisations will fast find themselves struggling to innovate or even “keep the lights on.” We need to stop looking to other companies and bodies to take the steps we so badly need if we’re to secure the future of our industry before it’s too late.

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