With an estimated 10,000 IT positions apparently going unfilled in Ontario, it must be the best of times. Yet rampant unemployment in the ranks of IT suggest it’s obviously the worst of times. Blatant contradictions bother me, they suggest that something we know to be true isn’t exactly as we know it.

As an easily accessible, somewhat prominent writer and speaker, many people send me their resumes asking for help in getting a job. (This is not a request for more of the same. Sorry.) Generally what I receive indicates a high degree of technical competence. Certainly if the necessary reference checks panned out, these are potential hires in any organization.

Yet, these folks – desperate enough to send their resume to someone they know only in passing – have looked for work, without success for months, sometimes years. If there are 10,000 positions waiting to be filled…what’s going on?

Based on personal experience I’m certain I have part of the answer. Years ago, at those times when I felt compelled to leave an employer for one reason or another, I used the services of those good people we affectionately refer to as headhunters.

They all had me fill out a skills inventory list. As a mainframe programmer they asked what operating system or type of hardware I had programmed on. That’s one of the dumbest questions you can ask a programmer.

If you program in Cobol, it makes very little difference as to which platform you’re using. Yet, I knew I would not be presented to any employer who was not using the same operating environment as the one I’d just left.

What was crucially important to the headhunter and the companies they worked with was that I was able to program in language “X” Version 2.03462 on operating system “Y” Version 4.300-202. Nothing has changed except the alphabet soup.

This is the source of the IT employment problem. We define ourselves by our particular set of technical skills, rather than on our technical aptitude. When we finally get elevated to the exalted position of management, we in turn, perpetuate this limiting perspective.

Here’s a disturbing observation. Within six months of being hired to fit one of these exacting, precisely defined, technical positions the chances are extremely good that the new hire will be doing something totally different. So much for the exacting standards we spent so much time trying to fill.

In the past I’ve been asked if I knew how to program in “X”. Even if I had never heard of the language, I’d answer honestly “I can!”, because I knew that within a week, with the help of some rapidly acquired books, sample programs, a willingness to ask stupid questions, long nights and an overdose of caffeine that I would be able to deliver on my assertion. I had the aptitude proven by the long list of other languages I’d mastered in similar circumstances.

Likewise, I filled technical positions in my department with candidates plucked from the secretarial pool and user community. Very few of the people I’ve hired over the years have ever come pre-equipped with the technical skills necessary to do the job. They all had proven ability or aptitude. And not one of these carefully chosen people ever let me down.

Over the years, I’ve responded to advertisements for technical and management positions mainly to keep in touch with how the hiring process is evolving and also, who knows, I might be tempted to get a real job. Sadly I have to report that things haven’t changed much. Regardless of proven ability, my lack of specific technical skills can’t even get me through the door.

Once upon a time you could go to a bank and based upon nothing more than your credit rating and standing in the community, they would grant you a loan. The same was true of technical positions. If you could demonstrate proven ability with similar equipment, and a willingness to learn, you’d get the job.

Today organizations are unwilling to allow credit for ability, aptitude and willingness to work the long nights to acquire a skill. Today we look for the shrink-wrapped employee, properly certified and stamped.

de Jager is also a management consultant. Contact him at [email protected].

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