Minnesota companies need IT workers, but stumble in hiring

  • Article by: ADAM BELZ , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 29, 2013 - 11:17 AM

Companies in Minnesota and across the country are struggling to hire technology workers, and it’s partly their own fault.

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Companies in Minnesota and across the country are struggling to hire technology workers, and it’s partly their own fault.

All sorts of industries are shifting in ways that suddenly require tech expertise. Businesses in manufacturing, banking and marketing, not traditionally hotbeds of software innovation, have found themselves trying to hire information technology managers and build teams of software developers as they try to adjust in the digital age.

The transition has exposed the much-discussed high-tech skills gap within pockets of the U.S. workforce, but it also has shown that firms are slow to learn how to hire and manage the tech workers they need. Not only are these companies new to technology, the technology is constantly changing.

“This is all such new stuff. Corporate computing is barely 50 years old. The Web is only 15 years old. There is incredible complexity and change in these roles and industries,” said Isaac Cheifetz, an IT headhunter and consultant in Minneapolis.

Non-technology firms added more than half of the 400,000 computer and math jobs the U.S. economy created in the past five years. More than a third of IT openings in Minnesota are difficult to fill, according to a recent survey and report published by the state’s Labor Market Information office.

Employers are quick to pin the problem on a shortage of people with the right skills, but survey responses indicated that more than half the time, companies create their own obstacles.

Firms write and stick to overly specific job descriptions, aren’t willing to pay enough, might have reputations as bad places to work in IT, or just don’t know how to recruit, a survey of 122 firms with 559 openings found.

One firm in the anonymous survey complained that candidates are too frequently IT generalists. Another said all its candidates either have too much or too little experience.

Seeking the perfect hire

One company said it needs a person who can work on four different software platforms and also edit images.

“We haven’t been able to find anyone who has all of those,” the company wrote.

This is a common pitfall, say IT consultants. Companies branching into technologically demanding businesses tend to write unrealistic job descriptions. A firm might buy a new system and then rigidly look for someone with the specific skills to work in it, instead of being willing to consider someone who could quickly learn the necessary skills.

“That’s just antiquated thinking,” said Michael Stewart, managing director at Work Effects, a consulting firm. “The people that are locked in that mind-set don’t really understand the real needs of the developer and the marketplace.”

Meanwhile, firms fail to create an atmosphere geared for energetic software development and IT, Stewart said. Developer work is too often wasted, or they don’t understand the business payoff. They’re filling out task tickets instead of helping to guide strategy.

“Many organizations have not built their cultural abilities to embrace those kinds of people, and so they have a very difficult time recruiting folks,” Stewart said.

The inefficiency of the IT labor market is a natural outgrowth of programming jobs spreading into new industries. Managers are still figuring out how best to hire people and build a culture that keeps them from leaving in two years.

Fields such as health care, transportation and warehousing, public administration and education all posted double-digit increases in IT hiring between 2007 and 2012, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Minnesota pro­jects that the total number of computer workers in the state will grow twice as fast by 2020 as the number of new hires in traditionally computer-related industries.

One example is Dakota Electric Association, which employs about 200 people and has become more of a technology company in the past 15 years. Everything from the dispatch center to engineering is increasingly automated, requiring technical skills and support.

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