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.
“I can’t think of a job at Dakota Electric that doesn’t have some kind of technology behind it, and our IT area has grown considerably,” said Chris Ratzlaff, senior human resources administrator at the member-owned, nonprofit utility, which serves about 100,000 customers.
The utility, which is looking for a geographic information system administrator, now tries to find people who can learn new programs, because when someone leaves the company they often have multiple specialized skills. Specialized skills are difficult to hire for, Ratzlaff said, and are not always necessary.
“If somebody taught themselves a specific software program, or they’re a good learner, there’s a good chance that they’re going to be able to pick up the skill that you want them to have,” Ratzlaff said.
The shift toward every firm having to understand IT and software development is a recent one.
In 1998, only 150 million people worldwide used the Internet. The first iPhone wasn’t available until 2007. Now 2.8 billion people use the Internet and the number of smartphones has surpassed a billion. As the technology to tap those markets becomes easier to use, it’s possible for companies to hire in-house developers and technicians.
‘Pain points’ remain
“Right now we’re kind of in-between, where we’re at some midpoint between the technology being so esoteric that only specialists can use it and being so easy that everyone can use it,” Cheifetz said. “You can’t quite build mobile applications without writing code, but you almost can. That’s not really a negative at all, but this is one of those inevitable pain points.”
Saturn Systems, a Duluth-based software development firm, is one company that has tried to build a culture that’s good for software development.
Instead of crafting meticulous job requirements, the firm looks for people who know how to figure out programming. The company employs 55, and hires both experienced programmers and fresh graduates from the University of Minnesota Duluth, said Scott Risdal, a partner at the firm.
“The key thing that we’re looking for with our candidates is that raw technical talent,” Risdal said. “We can adjust.”