Computing Technology Industry Association (CompTIA) has shown that in contrast to a four-year high in the national unemployment rate, the number of unfilled IT service and support positions has tripled since the surveyed companies reported numbers in 1999.
Yet qualified IT workers are not having an easy time finding jobs, and the root of this discrepancy is a complicated matter. The survey pinpoints a surplus of positions open in IT service and support positions, but the reality for developers and engineers is that they are having a hard time landing lucrative IT positions. From the educational institutions that are readying IT workers for the industry to the companies that have stringent hierarchical hiring processes, everyone involved, to different degrees, contributes to the lag in hiring IT professionals.
The process is flawed at all the levels, from the candidates writing the resumes, through the recruiters and HR departments and up to the managers that are looking to fill a position in their tech departments. For the unemployed or job-seeking IT worker trying to stay competitive in today’s job market, whether one is a specialist or a generalist, it helps to understand how all the pieces fit together.
According to Ann Rosenblum, president of HR consultants Purpose in Being , there are multiple disconnections in the industry that lead to the discrepancy between the amount of IT workers in need of employment and the number of IT jobs that need to be filled.
The problem actually may have its beginnings in the schools that are training the IT workers. The schools are responding to the need for more trained professionals in specialized IT fields, but are they responding quick enough? Are they responding with the right kinds of courses to prepare technical workers for the reality of a market that can change faster than courses can be developed?
According to Rosenblum, educational institutions are often creating the lag by offering courses that are not realistic relative to market demands. “They will typically offer courses and certifications in technologies that are already outdated or for which there is already a glut of talent in the market, such as MCSE or HTML developers,” she says.
Part of the problem is with the bureaucratic nature of higher education. It can take years for any new course to be added to a curriculum, especially in schools that are not primarily focused on the subject, such as technology, for which they are trying to develop a curriculum.
Schools also tend to look at their competition to determine how they fit into the education market. Instead of looking at the actual needs of fluctuating workplaces, they are looking at other schools and taking their direction from how they are lacking in comparison to competitive institutions.
Professor Thomas Skinner of Boston University’s College of Engineering sees the situation a little differently. According to Skinner, it is essential to first understand the difference between what a university offers and what a technical school offers.
He agrees that training programs can easily fall behind because the technologies change so rapidly, but, he says, “one needs to look at the mandate of a university as opposed to a vocational training institution or other such educational unit.” Universities prepare students for a lifelong experience while vocational institutions train students in specific technologies.
“Universities try to teach fundamentals that are essential to the field and are not likely to be supplanted by a new technology. For example, the emphasis on teaching programming is made on the fundamentals of programming, algorithms, and data structures, rather than on specific programming languages,” Skinner says.
“We do need to include enough exposure to the current technologies to allow students to be useful when entering the job market, but we also need to be careful. If such technologies are taught predominantly from a user perspective, rather than from a more fundamental perspective, then we are not doing our job,” he says. “Companies want to plug graduates right into working positions with as small a learning curve as possible. Unfortunately, students thus prepared might lack the more basic general knowledge to advance on their own without undergoing specific ‘training.'”
Skinner focuses on one of the key problems. According to the CompTIA study, 51% of the CIOs surveyed indicated that independent IT industry association certification is important, and even though they ranked vendor-neutral certification as more important than vendor-specific, they are placing a great deal of emphasis on the certification.
The jobs that require the certifications are mainly service and administration jobs, and, according to Skinner, few graduating students want those positions. “They feel that they don’t want to waste a four-year education on jobs that are more associated with vocational programs rather than college programs,” he says.
Yet coming out of school or training programs with the right education for the current technologies in the market does not guarantee a competitive edge on finding a job. It really depends on whether or not the companies are going to see the candidate as viable.
According to Rosenblum, it is not uncommon for hiring managers to put together a job description that is actually more like a “wish list” of the ideal qualifications a candidate should possess, and these job descriptions can often be unrealistic.
Author and developer Rob Chartier has seen job ads for ASP developers requiring five years of experience with the technology. If the technology itself is only five years old and has spent less time on the market, how realistic is it to look for someone with that amount of experience?
“That is a joke,” says Chartier. “Anyone doing just ASP for that long should consider going back to school. Basing the skill level on the duration of use is not a good idea.”
Skinner offers the same perspective: “Any company looking to hire someone based on the number of years experience with a particular language is pretty short-sighted. There is no question that knowledge of the fundamentals of design and software development, programming languages, operating systems, computer architecture etc. are far more essential and valuable to companies in the long run than specific years experience with a specific language, technology, or platform,” he says.
Rosenblum has seen the same problem. “I’ve had client IT managers insist on in-depth experience with a software that hasn’t even been on the market for longer than a year. Only the beta testers of the software would really ‘know it,’ but they are a very small group and probably wouldn’t have the other skills listed on the wish list,” she says.
Does this mean that IT workers looking for employment should be discouraged from applying to positions that they feel they may be underqualified for based on the job descriptions? Based on the fact that job descriptions can often be unrealistic, the easy answer is no. But this only leads to another disconnection between all the people involved in the process.
Most companies that are large enough to need an actual IT department are also going to have a human resources department through which all new hires are filtered. The HR departments are usually the first point of contact between the company and the job candidates. HR departments are typically not trained to screen candidates for technical skills, so this leads to another disconnection.
According to Rosenblum, only occasionally will hiring managers provide a list of technical questions for HR to ask, “but this poses a challenge in that it is difficult for the recruiter to assess the answers given by the candidate and there is no opportunity for probing answers,” she says. HR departments are better suited to screening interpersonal skills and candidates’ written and verbal communication skills.
Many IT specialists looking for work are turned off by the whole process. “I get fed up when I have to explain to an HR person exactly what he or she is supposed to be interviewing me on,” said Chartier.
According to Susan Hurlburt, principal of the human resourcesconsultancy HR Rescue, “In recruiting for any position, the HR department needs to have a clear picture of the knowledge, skills and education needed for any position. Concerning the IT arena, the HR professional needs to understand these parameters. The process that one takes for recruiting a technical versus a nontechnical position should not differ for some aspects of the recruitment process.
“However,” Hurlburt adds, “at some junction there needs to be a greater understanding of technology, how it is applied at their organization and what knowledge, skills and experience is needed at their organization to make it work. This requires working with the IT department as a team to select the best candidate for the job.”
When HR departments rely on outsourced recruiters, then the process becomes even more complicated and opens the door for further disconnection. In effect, they are adding one more factor to the equation and furthering the distance between the hiring manager who probably has the best idea of what the ideal candidate should be and the candidate who can best represent himself to the hiring company if he can land that crucial first contact.
The outsourced recruiters often rely on resume-reading software that scans resumes for certain critical words or phrases. And even the human readers are looking for the same specific words or phrases, ignoring other qualities that would make the person a viable candidate for the position.
“Many recruiters rely heavily on the matching software and then fail to examine the candidate’s entire background (industry experience, general system and business knowledge, how the candidate applied the relevant skills on a project, what role played, etc.) – what I consider the more important elements, and therefore won’t forward those resumes to the hiring manager,” Rosenblum says. “Even if the recruiter is good enough to catch a gem in the mix, if the recruiter does not have a good relationship with the hiring manager, one based on trust, previous successful hires, a common overall understanding of the work environment, then the hiring manager might be unwilling to receive resumes other than those that fit his or her job requirements exactly and thus will miss out on a potentially excellent candidate.”
Because there are disconnects at all levels of the hiring process, the IT worker who is proactive will have the best results in the job hunt. You must understand the larger picture when entering an educational program and base your decisions on what you ultimately want to achieve on completion of the program: Is the program preparing you for a service and support position by offering a certification in a specific technology, or is it giving you a strong foundation in programming fundamentals that can be applied to a broader array of IT positions?
Hurlburt also offers this advice: “Become smarter about the companies that you are applying to. Take the time to research them on the Web,” she says. “Find out their product(s), how IT is utilized in their company and stress how your knowledge, skills and experiences can help them grow. Do not stress that you are good in only one thing. You need to stress that you are multifaceted and can handle multiple demands and priorities. Companies today need employees who can juggle many tasks and deadlines — and they reward for those capabilities.”
Hurlburt adds, “If you get into an interview and it is clear that the HR practitioner is not proficient in IT, take a moment (without offending) to weave into the conversation your knowledge of their company and how you can compliment their IT function with your varied skill set.”
With recession-like trends starting to affect the employment market, the job hunt has literally become a hunt, and if you are an IT professional looking for work you must add as many arrows to your quiver as possible.
One way to do this is to become the best salesperson of your own talent — and this means knowing if your background has limited you in any ways. While it seems that companies have the goal of hiring the best person for the job, sometimes it may take a little pushing for them to see that what you can offer them goes beyond what their HR department is scanning the market for.