How to fill the IT skills gap

With the best staff tough to find, here's a few ways to raise your game when it comes to IT recruitment.

Almost two-thirds (65 percent) of global CIOs say a lack of skills is holding back their digital transformation strategies, reports recruiter Harvey Nash and consultant KPMG. The research says the demand for highly skilled IT professionals continues to rise. So, how can CIOs find the capability to help deliver digital-led change? Three IT leaders outline their approach for filling the tech skills gap.

1. Make sure there's a puzzle to solve

You'd think Matt Harris, head of IT for Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport, would have no problems attracting talent. As the executive responsible for IT at the leading team in F1, it would be reasonable to assume Harris is besieged by a steady stream of talented IT professionals who are ready to test their mettle in the fast-paced world of motorsport.

But that's not always the case. "You'd be surprised -- we're geographically quite isolated," says Harris, whose firm's headquarters are based in Brackley, Oxfordshire in the UK countryside. While skilled technicians in certain areas will be drawn to the opportunities at a firm like Mercedes-AMG, Harris says IT professionals can be reticent.

"If you're an aerodynamics, design or engineering specialist, then working for an F1 team might well be the pinnacle of your working life. It's one of the most technically advanced areas. But IT's different -- IT is IT, and it often doesn't matter whether you're working for an F1 team or a finance firm," he says.

Harris meets this challenge head on. He thinks about how to make the work his team completes more interesting. That process relies on being able to remove the boring and mundane tasks from work. Harris looks for technology partners, who can help make IT simple, freeing up staff to work on innovation.

"If we can introduce systems that improve team operations and performance, then our IT professionals can work in more innovative areas, and then they're more interested in staying with us. They're more likely to go the extra mile for the team. Everyone's empowered to come up with ideas. And if they're good we'll implement them."

2. Build your IT team around relationships, not tech

Richard Gifford, CIO at logistics giant Wincanton, says a lot of the tech the business uses is increasingly delivered by partners. In-house IT professionals will be expected to engage with partners on an ongoing basis. Gifford says soft skills -- inspiring, leading and communicating -- will become more important for IT professionals in the future.

"It's going to be about building effective relationships, both within the IT team and across external partners," he says.

Gifford says these developments also have an impact on his demand for IT professionals internally. "I need an IT team that can drive demand that can help push business performance to a point -- then we need partners to work with to deliver results," he says.

"Equally, we also need to work with the system integrators who can bring more muscle in the market. They can use that experience to help us as an IT department. So, that's the model we're trying to try to use. Ultimately, that will mean a smaller, more commercial, more strategic IT team, but my IT professionals will be working with larger integrators."

SEE: Tech budgets 2019: A CXO's guide (ZDNet special report) | Download the report as a PDF (TechRepublic)

When it comes to developing the right skills internally, Gifford says he'll soon be looking for capability in emerging areas -- and he advises other CIOs to also get involved. "I'd start with AI, robotics and machine learning -- those areas are going to be fundamental," he says.

Gifford says IT leaders must take a pragmatic approach. While AI and automation are likely to generate big business benefits in the long term, Wincanton is not going to jump wholesale into those technologies. For now, the key is to develop big data capability, so when AI takes hold, Gifford's team and partners can feed systems and services with the right information.

"We need to think about how the organisation exploits data to make it a real game-changer," says Gifford. "I'm looking at that right now in terms of partners. We could partner up with people, but we must concentrate on integrating our efforts in these areas so we can use data as a competitive differentiator in terms of the services we provide."

3. Get out the office and tell your story

Hermes CIO Chris Ashworth says the parcel delivery firm has a strong bond with its IT partners but the business is more reliant on third-party expertise than he'd like. Ashworth is keen to attract more in-house talent to develop new customer services -- and he says storytelling plays a key role in his attempts to fill the IT skills gap.

"We try and get outside and talk to people about our story. I feel genuinely passionate about the work we're doing and I want other people to feel that, too. I look for people who've got energy and who want to be rewarded for doing a great job," says Ashworth.

The good news is Ashworth has already pulled together a strong team of enterprise architects. The firm's recently appointed CTO, meanwhile, is an expert in cloud. About 70 percent of the company's business processes are now in the cloud.

SEE: 10 ways to communicate more effectively with customers and co-workers (free PDF)

Yet challenges remain. Like Harris at Mercedes, Ashworth says location can be an issue. Hermes is based in the small market town of Morley, just outside Leeds in northern England. While that location is great for some, it isn't perfect for everyone.

"We can find it tough to recruit people when we're competing against firms that are based in a city centre," he says. "If you're looking for somewhere to settle with a family, it's a great location -- but it can be different when it comes to attracting millennials. Our struggle is to get hold of the stars who can help us move along our change curve."

Ashworth hopes getting out and talking to IT professionals about the innovative work at Hermes will help his firm attract talent. "We're looking for developers -- and that's all about trying to create value for our clients and their customers," he says. 

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