12 IT skills that employers can’t say no to

Have you spoken with a high-tech recruiter or professor of computer science lately? According to industry observers everywhere, and to IT World Canada’s own 2007 IT Labour Market and Salary Survey (executive summary available here), the technology skills shortage that pundits were talking about a year ago is real.

“Last year’s survey predicted a significant increase in hiring through 2006, which has been confirmed by recent reports from IT staffing firms,” says Andrew White, president of IT World Canada. “The 2007 survey shows the trend continuing, with 61% of responding companies expecting to hire new staff. Overall, the survey results show a demand for 12% growth in IT staffing levels in 2007, in Canada.”

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As much as 75 per cent of companies’ hiring efforts are dedicated to face-to-face meetings. Around 10 per cent of the time is spent screening potential employees’ resumes. Read about the implications.

Many recruiters say there are more open positions than they can fill, and students are getting snapped up before they graduate. Suffice it to say, the market for IT talent is hot, but only if you have the right skills. If you want to be part of the wave, take a look at what eight U.S. experts — including recruiters, curriculum developers, computer science professors and other industry observers — say are the hottest skills of the near future.

1) Machine learning
As companies work to build software such as collaborative filtering, spam filtering and fraud-detection applications that seek patterns in jumbo-size data sets, some observers are seeing a rapid increase in the need for people with machine-learning knowledge, or the ability to design and develop algorithms and techniques to improve computers’ performance, says Kevin Scott, senior engineering manager at Google Inc. and a founding member of the professions and education boards at the Association for Computing Machinery. “It’s not just the case for Google,” he says. “There are lots of applications that have big, big, big data sizes, which creates a fundamental problem of how you organize the data and present it to users.”

Demand for these applications is expanding the need for data mining, statistical modeling and data structure skills, among others, Scott says. “You can’t just wave your hand at some of these problems — there are subtle differences in how the data structures or algorithms you choose impacts whether you get a reasonable solution or not,” he explains.

You can acquire machine-learning knowledge either through job experience or advanced undergraduate or graduate coursework, Scott says. But no matter how you do it, “companies are snapping up these skills as fast as they can grab them,” he says.

2) Mobilizing applications
The race to deliver content over mobile devices is akin to the wild days of the Internet during the ’90s, says Sean Ebner, vice president of professional services at Spherion Pacific Enterprises, a recruiter in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. And with devices like BlackBerries and Treos becoming more important as business tools, he says, companies will need people who are adept at extending applications such as ERP, procurement and expense approval to these devices. “They need people who can push applications onto mobile devices,” he says.

3) Wireless networking
With the proliferation of de facto wireless standards such as Wi-Fi, WiMax and Bluetooth, securing wireless transmissions is top-of-mind for employers seeking technology talent, says Neill Hopkins, vice president of skills development for the Computing Technology Industry Association (CompTIA). “There’s lots of wireless technologies taking hold, and companies are concerned about how do these all fit together, and what are the security risks, which are much bigger than on wired networks,” he says.

The one skill that employers will always say ‘yes’ to

Read Shane Schick’s Career Corner blog entry about the critical non-IT skill needed by Canadian business.

“If I were to hire a wireless specialist, I’d also want them to understand the security implications of that and build in controls from the front end,” agrees Howard Schmidt, president of the Information Systems Security Association and former chief information security officer and chief security strategist at eBay Inc.

But don’t venture into the marketplace with only a wireless certification, Hopkins warns. “No one gets hired as a wireless technician — you have to be a network administrator with a specialization in wireless so you know how wireless plays with the network,” he says.

4) Human-computer interface
Another area that will see growing demand is human-computer interaction or user interface design, Scott says, which is the design of user interfaces for the Web or desktop applications. “There’s been more recognition over time that it’s not OK for an engineer to throw together a crappy interface,” he says. Thanks to companies like Apple Inc., he continues, “consumers are increasingly seeing well-designed products, so why shouldn’t they demand that in every piece of software they use?”

5) Project management
Project managers have always been in high demand, but with growing intolerance for over-budget or failed projects, the ones who can prove that they know what they’re doing are very much in demand, says Grant Gordon, managing director at Kansas City-based staffing firm Intronic Solutions Group. “Job reqs are coming in for ‘true project managers,’ not just people who have that denotation on their title,” Gordon says. “Employers want people who can ride herd, make sense of the project life cycle and truly project-manage.”

That’s a big change from a year ago, he says, when it was easy to fill project management slots. But now, with employers demanding in-the-trenches experience, “the interview process has become much tougher,” Gordon says. “The right candidates are fewer and farther between, and those that are there can be more picky on salaries and perks.”

The way Gordon screens candidates is by having on-staff subject-matter experts conduct interviews that glean how the candidate has handled various situations in the past, such as conflicting team responsibilities or problem resolution. “It’s easy to regurgitate what you heard from PMBOK [the Project Management Institute’s Project Management Body of Knowledge], but when it comes to things like conflict management, you start seeing whether they know what they’re doing.”

In one case, Gordon asked a candidate to describe how he’d go about designing a golf ball that goes farther by changing the dimples on the ball. “No one has the answer to questions like that, but it shows how they think on their feet and how they can break down a problem that’s pretty ambiguous into smaller segments,” he says.

6) General networking skills
No matter where you work in IT, you can no longer escape the network, and that has made it crucial for non-

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