Mining an IT diamond in the rough

Despite a multitude of available candidates, IT executives still are finding it tough to find the one person with the right combination of skills and talent, according to some industry watchers.

“The combination of high-tech layoffs, diminished demand for new network positions and an uptick in offshore outsourcing has created a pool of highly skilled, unemployed IT professionals in the U.S.,” said David Foote, president and chief research officer for New Caanan, Conn.-based analyst firm Foote Partners LLC.

Yet despite the number of available candidates, he said many IT managers report they still struggle when trying to fill mission-critical positions such as security manager and network architect.

Foote said the positions posing the most challenges today are enterprise-wide project managers and security managers with business knowledge. “Many companies are moving out of the siloed approach to IT and are aligning how they approach IT with their line of business,” he said.

In a recent survey of 270 Canadian CIOs, commissioned by Toronto-based IT recruitment firm Robert Half Technology, 88 per cent of respondents said the technical skill set in shortest supply within IT departments is that of the Microsoft Windows (NT/2000/XP) administrator. Visual Basic development was also a sought-after specialty, receiving 40 per cent of the response. Cisco network administration was selected as a high-demand specialty by 39 per cent of executives (Survey participants were allowed to choose multiple responses).

CIOs surveyed were also asked to identify positions in greatest demand within their IT departments. Help desk technician, programmer and network administrator were cited most frequently.

Although 14 per cent of the survey’s respondents said they plan to expand their IT departments in the fourth quarter of this year, some industry watchers have noted that positions such as security manager and IT business planning manager often go unfilled for three months to as long as a year. They say part of the reason jobs stay open is because today’s IT professional needs to be more than technically certified.

Separate surveys released by Foote Partners and Bridgewater, N.J.-based People3 Inc., a human resources and IT skills research firm, suggest project management and business process skills are as much in need as high-tech talents such as security management, database administration, XML proficiencies, Linux and Web services work. Today’s enterprise IT departments are responsible for boosting the company’s bottom line, analysts concluded.

David Connal, manager of the learning business unit at Maritz Canada, a performance improvement services company in Mississauga, Ont., said a lot of tech workers fall short on business-related skills. “There’s still a big gap in North America – there’s a whole culture of technical people who don’t necessarily have those bridging skills (between business and technology),” he said.

The easiest way for job candidates to catch an employer’s eye, Connal said, is to tout their ability to make the connection between IT and business through softer skills such as client relations and negotiation.

Chris Holbert, director of IT at medical device manufacturer North American Scientific in Chatsworth, Calif., said the new skills across the range of technologies his staff handles include business and IT process skills, network architecture expertise and security management.

Holbert said he seeks job candidates with “analytical problem-solving skills and those who are able to work within an ambiguous and ever-changing environment.”

People3’s managing vice-president Diane Berry said that when looking to fill a position, an IT hiring manager must first distinguish if the specific high-tech skill is a short-term need or a long-term requirement for the company’s infrastructure and line of business. If it’s a quick fix such as rolling out a new application, firms could outsource that job and save on the long-term budget commitment. But if the skill will be needed in years to come, hiring managers should first look in their own IT departments for potential candidates.

Many IT managers could have the ideal candidate for a new position already on staff, Berry said. “If you have those types of IT employees in-house, it makes a lot of sense to retrain them.”

– with files from Patricia Pickett