The IT skills gap is getting worse. Here are 10 ways you can avoid a crisis

More than two-thirds of digital leaders can't keep pace with change because of a lack of technology talent.

Building the digital workforce: Tech skills, trends and strategies for success

The IT skills crisis is worse than ever before and CIOs must create effective recruitment and retention strategies if they want to snare the talent that their digital transformation projects desperately require.

That's the main finding from recruiter Harvey Nash Group's Digital Leadership Reportwhich shows that more than two-thirds (67%) of digital leaders globally are now unable to keep pace with change because of a dearth of technology talent.

Special Report

Digital Transformation: A CXO's Guide

Reimagining business for the digital age is the number one priority of many of today's top executives. ZDNet offers practical advice and examples of how to get your digital transformation right.

Read More

Bev White, chief executive of Harvey Nash Group, says her conversations with CIOs suggest that companies with IT skills gaps are going to find it much harder to hit their digital transformation targets.

SEE: Tech skills: Four ways you can get the right mix

"They won't be able to achieve what they're needing to do," she says. "And that would be a terrible outcome because we're seeing some fantastic transformational work being undertaken by digital leaders today."

White says the continued push for digitisation – with 60% of companies intending to increase technology investments during the next 12 months – means talented tech workers are going to be highly prized.

While the demand for continued tech investment is good news for CIOs, it also creates huge pressures, particularly when it comes to resourcing. New projects need talented staff – and they're becoming increasingly hard to attract and retain.

"It's really competitive and people are throwing the kitchen sink at people to get them to leave their current roles and join their businesses," says White. "So not only are you trying to attract new talent in, but you're trying to keep the back door shut, so that people don't go off and leave you. For CIOs, the skills crisis is now a massive challenge."

It's a trend that's recognised in the boardroom, too. Gartner says recruitment and retention is a top strategic priority for 52% of boards of directors for 2022, representing an 86% increase in interest over 2021. The analyst says the skills crisis is becoming a much more critical issue for boards as companies accelerate their digital transformation efforts.

Harvey Nash's research suggests that while 61% of organisations globally are planning to increase their IT headcounts to record levels during the next 12 months, four in 10 digital leaders say they can't keep people as long as they would like to because they're being lured away by the offer of more money somewhere else.

In terms of capability gaps, cybersecurity (43%) is the most sought-after tech skill, up by almost a quarter in the past 12 months, followed by big data/analysts (40%), and technical architects (34%). The shortage of developers (32%), meanwhile, is increasing at a faster rate than other tech roles.

White says CIOs who want to keep innovating on behalf of their businesses must wake up to the growing skills crisis. She suggests 10 tactics for digital leaders who are looking to recruit and retain hard-to-find talent:

  1. Increase internal capabilities – White says industry estimates suggest about 10% of tech skills become redundant every year. As those older skills fall away, CIOs must focus on developing newer skills among their people. That's important because people will stay with you if they feel they have a meaningful role that's developing into a long-term career.
  2. Cross-train your staff – Give staff the opportunity to develop new skills as they work. Train people inside and out of technology teams in fresh digital and data skills, such as analytics and popular programming languages. More than half (51%) of digital leaders are planning to cross-train people in other parts of their organisation during the next year. 
  3. Offer more flexibility – Make sure your people know that you really want to keep them. "Remember to say 'thank you'; show them that they're valuable," says White, who believes demonstrating value isn't just about paying people more money, it's also about giving people the flexibility to work how they want to.
  4. Fill gaps quickly – White says we're now in an IT labour market where sought-after skilled people have a lot of say over the direction of their careers. Grab talented people while you can. "If you're interviewing someone, make a decision and move fast because they'll be gone in a heartbeat," she says.
  5. Don't search for perfection – Candidates who are missing one or two skills can be trained on the job. But while you should prepare to upskill, you should also make sure you pay attention to the cultural fit. If the individual isn't the type of person who's going to adopt to your style of working, then it's unlikely training will help.
  6. Cast your net wider – White says labour markets have widened. Companies that used to recruit across a 20-mile radius are now hiring skilled candidates from around the globe due to cloud and collaboration technologies. More than a third of digital leaders have widened their geographical net to source new talent.
  7. Attract younger talent – Work with schools, colleges and universities to encourage more young people to take STEM subjects as part of their education. White says CIOs must find fresh ways to show young people that a career in IT can be both exciting and rewarding.
  8. Broaden your reach – Be willing to take people without experience and teach them how to be technologists. Just over a third (39%) of digital leaders say they will be offering more apprenticeships over the coming year. Those apprenticeships shouldn't just be for young people, either – look for anyone who has the mindset to learn and develop.
  9. Create a consistent offer – There's lots of job openings, so talented IT professionals will be looking for roles that show career development opportunities. Create a strong message to attract people and keep it consistent once they've joined. If the on-the-job experience doesn't match the original offer, then new people will leave quickly.
  10. Consider alternative sources – Wage inflation around permanent roles means your organisation should also look to contractors and freelancers as a way to fill capability gaps. Your organisation gets the skills it needs; contractors get the flexibility they desire.

What's clear from Harvey Nash's research of more than 2,100 digital leaders around the globe, which was completed iin collaboration with CIONET and contributed to by Massachusetts Institute of Technology CISR, is that recruitment and retention strategies are a continual work in progress. 

Organisations that work to hone their strategies now are likely to have an advantage when it comes to hiring and keeping talent. So far, only a third of companies (32%) have redesigned their employee offer to make it attractive to staff in the new hybrid-working world. The task for digital leaders now is to find a strategy that works – and quickly.

"There isn't a silver bullet for this," says White. "It's about doing a mix of things that are really important. CIOs are talking about their recruitment and retention tactics all the time now. They know that doing nothing is not an answer. They know they can't afford to slow down digitisation efforts because of a skills gap. They've got to keep going."