CIOs rethink how they hire for hard-to-fill IT roles

CIOs need to try a lot harder these days to find IT talent, particularly when it comes to the most difficult-to-fill positions. Strategies most IT leaders are deploying include offering signing bonuses and more paid time off, being open to hiring people with different types of life experiences, and looking for cultural fit in addition to — or instead of — specific technical know-how. And some are simply looking to build the talent themselves.

“You have to be willing to hire someone who knows nothing,” advises Jim Johnson, senior vice president at recruitment firm Robert Half. “Everything we use as a skill can be learned and can be taught.”

Although it may be a stretch, it could be worthwhile to take a second look at a musician or a teacher, for instance, who wants to make a career change, especially if their previous jobs included a strong tech component. “Look for personality and a track record of success,” Johnson says, or what he calls aptitude and attitude. Ask the candidate to explain how they best learn new things, he suggests, or how they’ve done so in the past.

Not everyone is a fan of the culture-first approach. Victor Janulaitis, CEO of Janco, an IT consultancy, does not recommend it. “Yes, culture is important, but you don’t want to hire a warm body just to fill a spot,” he says. “You’d be creating a legacy disaster. You’ll spend a lot of management time bringing the person up to speed, your team’s productivity goes down, and your existing staff gets pissed off.”

Even proponents say the hiring-then-upskilling method may not work for every IT job. According to the most recent State of the CIO survey, the positions that IT leaders are having the most trouble filling this year include cybersecurity (34%), data science/analytics (23%), AI and machine learning (19%), application development (15%), and software engineering (15%). Some of these positions require solid technical chops, while others incorporate skills that can be learned.

Another hot job category these days, Robert Half’s Johnson says, is from the way-back machine: help desk professionals. “There’s a huge demand for deployment experts to acquire systems, image software, and get those into the hands of users. There’s been a bit of a change in that regard over the past few years.”

Here’s how IT leaders are currently approaching the challenge of hiring for those difficult-to-fill IT roles.

Flexibility is essential

Eduardo Ruiz, CIO at the Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health (ASPPH) in Washington, DC, has had trouble finding help desk personnel, project managers who know agile methodology, and technical developers. His organization is a nonprofit, meaning he has always been in competition with larger, better-funded organizations for talent, he explains.

Not too long ago, one benefit he could offer was “tremendous flexibility” regarding remote work because his organization has been in the cloud for several years — even before the pandemic — and is now fully virtual. But today, most companies are offering the ability to work remotely, at least for part of the time if not fully. “That differentiator has vanished,” he says.

These days he’s relying more on nearshoring, “with mixed results,” he says. He needs to pay a premium for those resources, and it can take some time to onboard these employees and get them up to speed. He also needs to spend time managing the work from outsourcers. “It’s a good stopgap,” Ruiz says, although his preference is to still hire permanent staffers.

Tsvi Gal, head of enterprise technology services at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC) in New York, says that remote work is baked into the hospital’s culture. “We have a social agreement” that staffers can live and work anywhere in the Eastern US time zone, he explains. “But when we need you on-site for meetings, you commit to show up. No excuses, no complaining about how far away you live. You can ride a camel” as long as you get there.

“It’s a fair deal,” he says.

Although there are some jobs that can’t be done remotely — supporting the advanced robotics systems used during surgery, for one — mostly people can work from where they choose, and the hospital provides a laptop, noise-canceling headset, software, security, and other gear to help make that happen. It’s the difference, Gal says, between being “remote-tolerant” and truly “remote-friendly.”

Cast your net widely

Matt Schwartz, CTO at Sage Hospitality, was looking for a SaaS administrator who could juggle both administration and strategy for the company’s critical cloud systems, including Office 365, Boxed, Zoom, and Okta. “It was tricky to find someone” because they were looking for a specific mix of technical and business skills.

After several months, they located someone in Chicago; Sage is based in Boulder, Colo. “You have to be open to remote associates if you want to fill a specific role,” Schwartz says.

Schwartz calls this a “generational adjustment,” saying, “why live or work somewhere you hate? Life is short.” Plus, he says, allowing people to live where they want gives you a better chance of retaining staffers for longer periods of time.

Robert Half’s Johnson agrees that a national approach is the way to go. “Companies are 20 times more likely to find a top performer” when they open their search to national candidates versus local talent only, he says. It also can save money, at least for salary, depending on where the candidate lives.

Other hiring sources, Janco’s Janulaitis says, can be competitors and professional societies.

Look ahead and plan accordingly

MSKCC’s Gal reassigns existing IT staffers to new posts depending on what he thinks he’ll need in the next three to five years and which areas may be overstaffed in that same timeframe. And in the meantime, those who are moving to new posts get training and the opportunity to do the new work. “As the need starts to mount, we’ll have an internal channel of supply,” he explains.

For instance, the hospital will be unplugging its last mainframe by the end of the year. Rather than lay off existing staffers or hire other people with new skills, they’re going to reassign as many of their existing mainframe staff as possible and move them into other roles. Though Gal declines to specify what those roles will be, he says he’d rather rely on existing staffers than start over with new employees whenever he can.

When assessing candidates, Gal says, he looks at three important aspects:

Skills, which can be learned if people are willing to spend the time.Abilities, which also can be taught, but these generally take longer to learn; there can also be some innate ability in these, such as people who are naturally good at math or music.Values, which involve the type of person you are, and values “don’t change,” Gal says. “I’d rather have a person who has the right values and abilities” over specific skills.

Perks still matter

Adding extra vacation time, for instance, to existing corporate policies may be easier than changing up salary structures and other perks, Janco’s Janulatis says. Just don’t forget to assess your current employees also and make sure their benefits keep pace.

Robert Half’s Johnson says that 44% of the companies they work with are offering signing bonuses and 41% are offering more time off.

On the other hand, Janulatis says, 401k plans and other retirement plans may not be as important to younger workers as they once were. “They’d rather have cash on the barrelhead,” he explains. “They have a different set of priorities and are more interested in getting experience that helps them” in the short term instead of having to work for 10 or more years to cash out of a 401k. “Part of the hiring process is trying to isolate some of those characteristics.”

Move quickly, but don’t skip steps

“Hire for speed, and fire for speed,” Janulaitis advises. In other words, the traditional months-long hiring and onboarding process no longer works, if it ever really did. “Have metrics to measure a new employee’s performance,” he suggests, including a reasonable set of deliverables and expectations, and if they person’s not working out, let them go within a week or two.

Sage Hospitality’s Schwartz says they’ve truncated their hiring process and do fewer interviews in less time — say, two rounds over two weeks, with more panel interviews and fewer one-on-ones. For this to work well, he says, you need to figure out who the “critical” interviewers are.

In today’s ultra-competitive market, hiring success will “probably come down to who’s willing to move quickest and give an offer,” Robert Half’s Johnson says. The trick, he says, is to move quickly but don’t hurry. And, as always, don’t neglect the reference and background checks.

Tap into the local college scene

ASPPH’s Ruiz is also working more proactively with local colleges and universities, particularly for entry-level jobs in the analytics space. “We didn’t have to do that” several years ago, he says. He’s also working with multiple recruiters, instead of relying on only one, and advertising on different social media venues popular with younger workers. He’s also “hiring green and training up,” particularly for developers.

Community colleges are also great resources for retraining existing IT staffers and connecting with another stream of potential candidates.

Offer meaningful work and create a healthy culture

“We always hire for culture first,” not technical qualifications, Sage Hospitality’s Schwartz says. “The more ‘qualified’ person may not be a good fit.” Further, he says, “If it’s not a good culture, candidates aren’t interested, no matter what you pay.”

Culture includes providing a safe work environment that nurtures collaboration, and investing in people for training and certification. It might also include paid time off to do volunteer work of the employee’s choosing, as well as flex time to accommodate family needs.

One way ASPPH’s Ruiz says he can compete with the tech giants and others is to offer candidates meaningful work in the public health field, a need that’s “unfortunately been highlighted by the pandemic,” he says. “We teach the future Faucis of the world,” he says, referring to Dr. Anthony Fauci, the epidemiologist who has often been the public face of Covid-19 policy in the United States.

MSKCC’s Gal agrees. “We can’t guarantee that everyone will be able to work on the next algorithm to help cure cancer. But we can offer an intellectual and technology challenge, and meaningful work, not just the money, and the opportunity to work with some of the best minds in the world.”

It’s also a matter of showing how the work that individuals are doing contributes to the whole, Gal explains. “We all celebrate” when a significant milestone is reached, whether it’s saving lives with a new research protocol or helping make the hospital and the people who work there more productive.

At the end of the day, Gal says, just about every organization has a sign somewhere about putting their people first. “But it’s not enough to just have a slogan; you need to live it,” he advises. “Do you actually act as if it’s important? People are smart and will know if you mean it or are just saying it.”

Hiring, IT Training