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Emerging IT Challenges

A Diverse Set of Skills Needed for Technical Roles

5/11/2016 12:00:04 AM | At a time when more and diverse IT technical as well as interpersonal skills are needed, fewer people are majoring in computing-related fields and getting degrees in computer science. Baby boomers—people born between 1946 and 1964—with long-standing jobs in IT are retiring at a steady rate creating skill challenges for companies since historically they have made up more than a third of the working population. The article “When the Boomers Go” cited the U.S. Census Bureau’s startling statistic that eight people turned 65 every minute in 2015.

Are more diverse technical and other skills really needed?
Over the last 50 years, computing has changed dramatically with the emergence of a number of OSes and programming languages, as well as a plethora of computing paradigms like client-server, Web hosting and cloud computing, each with its own ecosystem of middleware to meet any need of a developer. It’s a challenge for IT people to develop and maintain the variety of technical skills needed in today’s workplace.

Technical skills aren’t the only ones needed. According to research by Eom and Lim, IT professionals need “right skills” including:

• Communication and problem solving,
• Collaboration and project management,
• Facilitation and IT advocacy, all supported by
• Personal traits like friendliness, compassion and respect

These conclusions were based on an empirical study using a cross-industry survey of over 200 participants. Eom and Lin aren’t the only researchers focused on essential skills. Lerman writes “although reading, math, and writing capabilities are in high demand and are relevant to most jobs, so too are occupation-specific and other generic skills, including communication, responsibility, teamwork, allocating resources, problem-solving and finding information.“

Are fewer people majoring in IT-related fields and getting computer-science degrees?
According to Robert Litan, from 2002 to 2012 there has been an 18 percent decline in computer-related majors while other majors like healthcare has seen a 129 percent increase. The decline in computer majors experienced the greatest decline beating out education and English majors.

In addition, women aren’t getting or staying in the computer field. Fortune magazine reports that there has been a 9 percent decline from 1990 to 2013 in women computing professionals. Why the decline? Studies show that computer science has a gender bias toward men, the field has become unfriendly to women and women are less tolerant than men of a workplace atmosphere that tolerates uncivil behavior and doesn’t offer clear opportunities for training and advancement.

Are retiring IT workers creating challenges for companies?
Retiring IT workers are creating a challenge for many companies since baby boomers make up a third of the labor pool and fewer are postponing retirement now that the economy has experienced a rebound.

In a recent survey, the Society for Human Resource Management reports that a third of employers expect staffing problems in coming years as the pipeline of leaving employees is larger than the hiring one. This gap may be temporary but the future is difficult to predict as there are many varying influences by company, industry and location.

According to Tushar Jain, “[CIOs] across all industries are restructuring information technology strategies to account for the impending exodus of baby boomers from the workforce as economic conditions improve and retirement becomes a viable choice.

However, there is another side of this situation. Companies can also face challenges when retirement-eligible employees remain in place either because they don’t have enough money saved to retire or because their salary and benefits package contains significant incentives to stay with the company. The consequence of senior people staying beyond retirement is that the company can be challenged to attract and promote talented employees as normal company personnel change and growth can get stalled. In the article “When Workers Won’t Retire, Workforce Challenges Arise,” a hypothetical example is given of a company of 10,000 workers that showed a potential promotion delay of 1,000 individuals when just 2 percent of retirement-eligible employees decide to stay.

What can IT workers do to broaden their skills?
There are a wide variety of well-established ways to improve technical and non-technical skills. For example, to get a new technical skill or to improve an existing skill you can get a certificate or certified. This approach is appealing because you develop new skills and have something to show for it in the form of a certificate or certification. It’s generally understood that certifications indicate to employers that you take your work seriously and that you are knowledgeable about the respective technology.

Soft skills may be a bit harder to refine. There’s no shortage of materials on topics like “how do I improve my collaboration skills,” for example “10 Ways to Enhance Your Team Collaboration Skills,” however getting some recognition for the educational experience is difficult, so using your new skills on the job might have to be its own reward.

What actions can be taken to help address the IT skill gaps left by retiring workers?
Organizations with strategic vision have been working on the challenge of baby boomers leaving for more than a decade. Others however have not started in earnest and weren’t penalized for their inaction because of the economic downturn starting in December 2007, as this delayed many retirements. The economy has rebounded and it may not be too late for some companies to take action, but they need to start by accessing the situation and the risk of continued inaction.

Rigoni and Adkins report that many companies seem largely unprepared for the departure of this generation of workers. They propose a specific set of actions to be taken by companies to transition talent into and out of the company. Their strategies focus on identifying and documenting the talents of the top performers, conducting experience interviews, creating intergenerational partnerships and establishment of a knowledge management system.

“When the Boomers Go” explains a number of tactics being used by employers to up-skill workers, like Lockheed Martin’s Space Systems project to identify and access employees’ skills and Duke Energy’s capture and documenting of interviews with senior engineers.

Employers should play an active role in helping less experienced employees develop the skills needed to supplant retiring workers. It is mainly in their self-interest to do this. Since lower-paid workers often replace retiring senior personnel, the result is cost-saving for the company in pay and benefits. The savings can be use to fund longer-term skills-development projects.

If you’re getting started dealing with the retirement of key personnel, develop a plan and start acting on it. Here are a few tactical suggestions that might get you some quick results.

You can reduce the impact of the loss of legacy skills by deliberately exploiting newer software features designed to make people more productive or require less experience. For example, use a graphical interface tool to install mainframe products versus installing them through the traditional route of using the System Modification Program submitted using JCL. Not all products have this capability but when it’s there you should use it.

IT departments should ensure that existing processes are descriptive in a way that helps new hires or personnel less experienced in a specific discipline. Often, this can be achieved as part of a regular planned refresh of the existing procedures.

If you have an immediate and unanticipated skill shortfall, you might use third-part personnel to fill specific gaps. For example, if a database management system upgrade is mandated and you no longer have a database system programmer, you might and use the opportunity to get the upgrade done and mentor a junior member of the department at the same time.

These simple ideas, and others like them, have value but they are no replacement for the thoughtful tasks that make up a balanced and diverse transition plan.

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