Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: IT Jobs in 2020: A Leader's Guide

Six tips for finding tech talent for difficult-to-fill specialties

In today's competitive IT job market, certain positions -- like systems engineers and security analysts -- are hard to fill. Here are some strategies to help you find the skilled tech workers you need.

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Image: iStock/yuuurin

Over the past year, there has been general consensus among IT recruiters and hiring managers that computer and information research scientists, information security analysts, and computer systems engineers and architects are among the IT positions that are most difficult to fill. Many of these positions come from the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) field, which requires its practitioners to commit to years of study and skills development.

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People with these skills can call their own shots with employers because their qualifications are hard to find. When a CIO does find the right candidate and makes an offer, it comes with stock options and a six-figure income. Of course, not every company can afford this.

One tier below these experts are other hard-to-find employees: mobile app developers, web developers, security specialists, network engineers, and those skilled in particular application or database niches, such as ERP software specialists in SAP, or database experts in software like Oracle. These individuals might not be quite as expensive as computer systems engineers or information security analysts, but they are fiercely fought over.

SEE: Analytics and data jobs: What employers are looking for (ZDNet)

Other factors are in play, too. IT managers want skilled workers, not apprentices. The competition intensifies when companies are all chasing the same talent and the available talent is scarce.

What can you do as a CIO to fill these roles when the skills don't abound in the market? Here are six strategies that may help.

1. Work your staff's networks

When I was a CIO at a midsize company, I found it almost impossible to hire database administrators and system programmers when I tried to go head-to-head with larger firms. Then, I tried something else. I met with my most senior people in these disciplines and asked them if they would reach out to 'known quality' colleagues whom they knew from their technical circles. As staff members began to work their personal tech networks, we suddenly landed a brilliant system programmer from a major Big Ten University that was located across town. Later, we hired an accomplished software developer from a large food and beverage company. We never would have signed these folks up if their fellow colleagues who worked for us hadn't sold them on the benefits of working for our company.

2: Appeal to what candidates are looking for above and beyond money

I once hired a DBA who had been around the block. He was in his late forties and wanted a chance to mentor new people as well as to command a leading position in a database group. The large company he was coming from was so compartmentalized that he didn't feel he was getting a holistic experience that included everything there was to strategize about, budget for, or implement that involved a database. Our 'smaller' opportunity offered that. There are other intangibles that people want -- and that you can compete on. Some of the most popular intangibles are a trusting work environment, a chance for more responsibility, opportunities for personal and/or professional enrichment, a sense of community, and the ability to make a difference.

SEE: Hiring kit: Data architect (Tech Pro Research)

3. Hire your contractors

There are contractors who are expert in areas like system programming, DevOps, and network security -- and they might consider signing up for the right kind of permanent job if they feel good working for you. For some contractors, the 'right' kind of job is a chance to get off the road or to find relief from the constant search for the next gig. It's wise to check a few boxes, though, before offering a contractor permanent employment. They should be someone who has already shown that they can provide the technical expertise you need. They should also get along well with staff and feel at home in your corporate culture.

4. Cross-train internal talent

You probably already have internal workers who would love to be trained into the hard-to-fill jobs you need staffed. For his reason, CIOs should continuously evaluate the talent they have in-house, identifying staff members who can rise to the challenge of a new position with the proper training. It might take longer to cross-train a staff person into a new position, but the benefits are worth it. One, you get a loyal employee who is likely to stay with you. Two, cross-training that employee (and others) becomes an object lesson for the rest of your staff. They know you are willing to invest in them professionally and personally. This builds loyalty.

5. Team with local universities and vocational schools

Many companies now work with local universities and vocational schools in the development of IT curriculum. Companies also give out internships to students on company projects as part of students' hands-on college education. This enables companies to evaluate the interns and offer the most promising ones permanent positions. Since a company has already worked with a university to tailor its IT curriculum to the needs of the company, it gets a new hire who is familiar with the company's IT environment and who comes pre-trained in DevOps, systems, database, or security.

6. Don't forget about the business-savvy business analyst

An IT person who knows the technology and the business and who can communicate equally well with users and DBAs is worth their weight in gold. So is the super-user who knows the business and has a strong understanding of IT. Either can make a great business analyst.

These people don't tend to appear on hard-to-fill position lists in IT surveys, but they are rare gems when you find them -- and they are exactly what companies need most: go-getters who bring people together and forge great ideas to advance the business.

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