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How to fill the tech skills gap

Even if your company has an IT generalist on-staff, cybersecurity, networking, and cloud computing are creating specialized demands.

Today, most companies are tech companies, and the pace of digital transformation is driving fierce competition for talent. But finding that talent can be a challenge if you're a small company, because you can't offer the salaries and benefits that larger enterprises can. 

This is not a new problem, but it's been exacerbated since the 2020 pandemic forced remote work at unprecedented levels. Now companies are scrambling to find workers with the skills they need to digitize processes—and it's not easy.

Typically, in a small company, "an IT person is a generalist and can't go in-depth on security or AI, where you'd get those opportunities in a larger company,'' observes Laurie McCabe, cofounder and partner of the SMB Group

One way to solve the problem is to upskill current talent. Art Zeile, CEO of tech jobs site Dice, believes smaller businesses may actually have an edge -- if they can offer training opportunities and challenging projects.

"Small businesses are uniquely positioned to fill the tech skills gap many companies are experiencing by leveraging innovative tech stacks, interesting projects and challenges, and the benefits of a startup-like culture,'' Zeile says. "Technologists often seek work that is meaningful and fascinating to them, not only to pique their interest, but also to help them become proficient in new skills."

Dice's 2021 Tech Salary Report shows that when technologists rank workplace benefits they consider important vs. those they currently have, a 23 percent gap exists around training and education. Nearly 70 percent say training and education are important, and only 45 percent have access to this upskilling option, Zeile says.  

"Technologists both desire and know they need to constantly evolve their skill sets, and some small companies may have access to budget for training and certifications given their smaller staff sizes,'' Zeile says. "When it's possible, augmenting an employer brand with upskilling options for tech professionals will certainly set a company apart from others expecting technologists to learn and develop on their own."

"We do see a good chunk of [companies] thinking about the importance of reskilling employees -- everyone realizes things could change on a dime," he adds. 

The role of Managed Service Providers (MSPs)

Often, small businesses turn to external IT contractors, especially when they start to grow, or if they need specialists. "There's a level of complexity as the business grows with employees who are doing more with tech, and more can go wrong, especially when things break,'' McCabe says. "They need someone at the very minimum to keep the lights on."

That's where someone like Cole Torres comes in. Torres, an Athens, Ga.-based independent IT consultant for SMBs, says he gets a lot of project work because a lot of companies aren't in a position to attract a full-time worker with high-end skills.

"My model switched during the pandemic,'' Torres says. "A lot of what I did was retainer-based work — helping companies with overall IT strategy and maintaining and improving on that. When COVID hit, budgets got squeezed and a lot of the retainer work fell away."

Torres switched to project work: setting up "proper networks" and implementing network security and VPNs, as well as analyzing systems and making sure users were able to access them remotely. 

This kind of outside expert is helpful even if a company is able to hire a full-time, in-house IT professional. "Even if someone can't implement new solutions," Torres says, "they can better translate between management and the external provider." 

Tech Training Courses

McCabe says that cybersecurity and cloud migration are two hot areas where companies may 'beat the system' by upskilling their own employees. Torres himself is working toward certification as an Azure Solutions Architect Expert.

Two sites he likes for training are CBT Nuggets and IT ProTV, which offer a variety of courses toward certifications. "I find going after certain certifications is beneficial, instead of just deciding what you want to learn,'' he says.

"If a company doesn't invest in external learning, Microsoft has free training for most of their certifications,'' Torres says. "I also read product documentation; I highly recommend you buckle down and do that."

When it comes to growing your IT skill set, McCabe suggests figuring out what the priorities are for your company. Some of the major areas where skills are needed right now are security, cloud computing, data analytics and networking, McCabe says. 

Other sites for free and paid IT training and education include:

  • LinkedIn Learning, which offers a variety of IT courses.

  • CompTIA offers certifications, training, and continuing education.

  • Dell offers training and certifications in new and emerging technologies.

  • Geekflare offers articles, tools, and APIs to learn new skills.

  • Alison.com offers free IT courses in areas including networking, security, hardware, software development, and mobile apps.

  • Codeacademy offers 12 free coding classes in programming languages such as Python, HTML, Ruby, Java, and JavaScript.

  • Udemy offers fee-based courses in areas including Python, Excel, web development, JavaScript, and data science.

In a competitive and rapidly shifting environment, continuing education for your employees can be a differentiator that enhances retention and improves your company's digital proficiency.