Coronavirus Adds to IT Staffing Challenges

By Nicole Lewis March 23, 2020

​HR executives will need to think strategically about how they'll manage IT staff while coping with the coronavirus pandemic.  

The year began on a high note. According to trade group CompTIA's estimates, the first two months of 2020 were good for IT workers, who saw a net job gain of 33,500 positions.

Describing the first two months of this year as "the best start to the year for the tech sector since 2017," CompTIA's Tim Herbert, executive vice president for research and market intelligence, now warns that a review of job posting data from Burning Glass Labor Insight indicates that uncertainty caused by the coronavirus may start to dampen IT hiring.

Herbert said many industries have taken a financial hit, but the degree to which lost revenue is postponed, has shifted to other expenditures or is permanently displaced is unknown.

He added that industries most directly affected—travel, hospitality, restaurants—are all buyers of technology, which means technology vendors and service providers could experience a sales decline in the short term.

"Again, it's too early to tell if these intended purchases among U.S. and overseas customers will be postponed to later in the year or shifted to other areas, such as upgrades to technologies that facilitate remote work or enhance disaster recovery effectiveness," Herbert said. "The other big concern revolves around disruptions to global supply chains, which negatively impact the bottom lines of original equipment manufacturers and could potentially lead to higher prices down the road, which hurts customers."

[SHRM members-only toolkit: How to Develop a Staffing Plan]

The pandemic has forced companies to shutter their offices and grapple with implementing and managing remote work—all while contending with a critical shortage of IT workers. 

"I think it's a fair assumption that the surge in telecommuting because of the coronavirus is going to put a strain on IT departments," said Matt Sigelman, CEO of research firm Burning Glass Technologies. "It's too early to know what impact that will have on IT hiring. Most employers are still coping with the immediate crisis."

Looking at what companies will need now and in the coming years, Sigelman said HR executives should focus on planning for their long-term technology requirements. 

"The most important point for hiring managers is to think about their skill needs strategically," he said. "If a company anticipates it will need more IT talent in the next few years, or specific IT skills, then they should plan for that now, instead of scrambling when the time comes."

For example, if a company anticipates a greater need for Python skills in the future, it has multiple options. HR executives could begin offering Python training to their current staff, or they could establish a relationship with a college or training provider so that students learning those skills now think of their company when it's time to look for a job. Or, they could start building Python into their current job postings and identify applicants with that skill.

"The important point is not to wait," he said. "If you wait, you will have to fight with other employers over a limited pool of candidates. It will take you longer to hire, and you'll have to pay more to get what you need."

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Scarce IT Talent

Data from Burning Glass shows that in 2019 there were 4.2 million unfilled IT jobs. Most of these positions weren't at technology companies, but were in sectors such as health care, manufacturing, education, finance and government.

In January, CompTIA published its International Trends in Technology and Workforce survey report, which polled 1,554 business and technology professionals in 14 countries. The survey showed that 72 percent cited technology as a primary factor in reaching business objectives but acquiring the tech talent to meet those objectives was a concern.

Forty-five percent have prioritized hiring skilled workers to help drive technology initiatives. But because of difficulties finding workers with IT skills, 87 percent outsourced or used outside tech companies' expertise at least occasionally in a typical year, including more than half who did so regularly (34 percent) or frequently (19 percent).

The statistics support a previous CompTIA report that projects the number of U.S. tech jobs will grow 13.1 percent from 2016 to 2026, compared to 10.7 percent growth for all occupations. 

As tech companies look for new ways to develop qualified IT workers, companies like IBM and Amazon are investing in training and upskilling workers at their respective companies. 

Herbert said there are many lessons to be learned as large technology employers look for candidates to fill IT jobs. 

"Too often we see these job descriptions where they are asking for an extensive list of credentials and certifications and an extensive list of experiences, and in some cases they are asking for eight years of experience in a technology that may only be two or three years old," he said. "Then they wonder why they cannot find anyone because in some cases they are hoping to pay entry-level or intermediate-level wages and they are hiring at a very advanced level."

New Skills in Demand

As companies create jobs that require the skills to implement emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), robotic process automation and blockchain, HR managers will have to understand the landscape of skills needed to identify the right pool of talent.

Burning Glass Technologies' researchers estimate that in 2019 there were 1.2 million jobs in various sectors across the U.S. that asked for SQL database skills.

There were 52,000 postings asking for natural language processing skills during the same period. Demand for data scientists has grown 19 times since 2012.

Hiring the right people to handle IT security is another concern. While a majority of firms in the CompTIA study describe their companies' cybersecurity at a level that is completely satisfactory (24 percent) or mostly satisfactory (45 percent), more than one-quarter say their firm's approach is simply adequate (25 percent) or unsatisfactory (6 percent).

For HR managers seeking tech talent, Sigelman said there are three things they need to do to succeed.

  • Tap the data sources to discover skills that will be needed in the future and what technology trends are likely to reshape their workforce. There's a wide range of data sources HR managers can use to identify skill trends, such as job postings, resumes and business intelligence groups.
  • Try to train skilled workers to fulfill future needs to avoid paying expensive salaries. If you need a marketing applicant who understands databases and you add database skills to your existing job description, you will end up competing in the labor market for a relatively small group of candidates and you will have to pay a higher salary to get them. If you can identify and anticipate the need, you can train existing workers, identify other geographies where the skill set is more common or build relationships with educational institutions—or some combination of all three—potentially at a lower cost.
  • Look at the relationships among roles within the workforce and across the market to identify and tap nonobvious sources of talent—such as training a treasury risk analyst into a cybersecurity analyst because of the skill overlap between them.


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