The IT Workforce Quandary

The IT Workforce Quandary

Talent is in high demand and short supply, but businesses can make some savvy personnel moves.

Just about every business needs high technology these days, even if it simply consists of a laptop, cloud provider, and a Square payment unit. Most businesses, whatever their size, certainly require more technology. They also need several skilled people to ensure that their systems are running smoothly, generating useful business and customer insights, and repelling cyber thieves from doing harm.

But finding people with specific technology skills is “more challenging this year than it was last year or the year before,” says Dee Thibodeau, CEO and co-founder of Plymouth–based Charter Solutions Inc.

The company provides data analytics and other IT services to businesses in health care, retail, manufacturing, and other sectors. Charter Solutions, which employs about 70 people, is particularly eager to find business analysts, data scientists, and other data analytics talent. It’s not that tech careers have lost their glamour or excellent pay. The reality is that demand has been outstripping supply.

“It’s not that students are going away from technology,” Thibodeau adds. “It’s that every organization wants to hire.”

Employment statistics tell the story:

  • There are 79,886 people employed in information technology positions in the Twin Cities seven-county metro area, with about 7 percent of these in state or local government. By next year, employment could rise by 2,000 to 3,000. That’s according to RealTime Talent, a St. Paul–based public-private employment collaborative.
  • RealTime Talent expects the talent shortfall for IT jobs in the Twin Cities area to be 2,250 by 2020. There’s a particularly high demand for cybersecurity specialists. Currently, there are more than 1,500 open positions in the security field, yet fewer than 200 graduates to fill that need.

So how can businesses find the skilled techies they need? The competition for them will probably remain keen in the near future. But there are strategies—some short-term, some long-term—that could help companies attract and keep
IT talent.

Helping develop developers

Needless to say, compensation and benefits packages also have to be competitive. But those are table stakes, and they’re not the only things that attract tech talent to a company. “You need to make sure that you’re ready to put them into a position that they’re going to find exciting,” Thibodeau says. “People want exciting work.”

By “excitement,” by and large, IT people want to learn new skills and cutting-edge technologies, then put that knowledge to work on challenges that a company faces. That requires a business to be actively involved in their employees’ career development.

“It goes into where someone wants to be in five, 10, 15 years, and helping them get there,” says Jason Erdahl, vice president of consulting and development for ILM Professional Services, an IT services provider based in Bloomington. That might mean helping position them for a job elsewhere, as a consultant or chief technology officer, for instance.

ILM has a dedicated training budget for its developers. Erdahl says that ILM also helps each developer determine which workshops and other training opportunities would work best for what they want to achieve in their careers. “It’s not saying, ‘Hey, here’s $2,000 and two weeks. Go have fun!’ It’s about finding the correct educational opportunities for them,” he says.

Currently, Erdahl notes, ILM managers and developers are interested in building skills in three high-growth areas. One is DevOps—the design of operations to speed up development of new technologies and software features. Another is front-end language JavaScript and React, a library for building user interfaces. Third is serverless architecture, which involves websites without servers hosting them.

Keeping up to date with technology isn’t the only way ILM helps developers develop. It can also involve development of social skills—learning to make eye contact with colleagues, for example. “Sometimes it’s as simple as teaching them the best way to say ‘no,’ ” Erdahl says.

That speaks to the importance of providing mentorship within a business. “One of the things that we’re finding is that folks … need someone other than their direct supervisor that they feel comfortable [going] to—someone they can go to for guidance,” says John O’Shaughnessy, infrastructure architect and senior consultant at the Cloud + Data Center Transformation division of Insight Enterprises. O’Shaughnessy, who is based in Eden Prairie, notes that “people today want clear road maps for their own career advancement.” Managers should be prepared to offer career advice and discuss opportunities in the company.;

“People today want clear road maps for their own career advancement.”
— John O’Shaughnessy, Insight Enterprises

“So much changes in IT these days,” he says. Salaries are an important consideration. “But if you can bring people in and show that you value them, train them on key technologies, we’re showing that we’re increasing their own value and not employing them just for a specific need of ours in the next three months.” Techies don’t want to be treated like plug-ins in a company’s digital machine. “People want to feel like a part of the team,” O’Shaughnessy says. “The more you do that, the happier and more productive people are.”

There are several ways a company can build tech talent from within. For instance, Oakdale–based Keyot, a business consulting firm whose cadres of consultants include IT developers and managers, conducts a “Crew212” program. It takes students just coming out of college and provides them with a high degree of support, mentoring, and professional development as analysts and developers, says Aaron Stratman, Keyot’s director of operations. The goal is to build future business and IT leaders.

IT Positions Command High Salaries

Jobs in the information technology sector provide excellent compensation. The Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) released the following wage data in 2018. These positions require bachelor’s degrees.

The next generation

Building that future is something numerous companies are working on. Many businesses are reaching out to schools, talking up the opportunities in IT, and offering advice on how educators can develop curricula to help spark student excitement in technology careers. “We speak at events,” Thibodeau says. “We’re going to the universities and colleges.” Many companies are starting even earlier. “It’s down to getting students in the elementary school interested, both boys and girls,” she adds. She points to the Girl Scouts’ robotics program as an example of the ways children can get interested in STEM-related fields.

It’s not just individual businesses that are connecting with the next generation. The Minnesota High Tech Association (MHTA), with about 300 members that include businesses, government entities, and nonprofits, has been creating programs to link young people with IT opportunities throughout the state.

In 2012, the MHTA launched SciTechsperience, a program that provides college students pursuing STEM degrees with paid internships in small to midsize Minnesota companies (those with 250 or fewer employees). In 2017, the program received $2.7 million in funding to support 650 student internships. If a company hires an intern through the program, it receives matching money that covers about 50 percent of the intern’s wages. The wage subsidy is capped at $2,500. Last year, about 29 percent of these internships were located with companies in Greater Minnesota. MHTA interim president Lisa Schlosser says about 80 percent of the student interns remain in Minnesota and accept full-time jobs.

“We know that diverse teams really help fuel innovation in technology companies.”
— Lisa Schlosser, Minnesota High Tech Association

More than 40 percent of the interns come from groups that are underrepresented in STEM fields—science, technology, engineering, and math. They are primarily women and people of color, who often are ignored as potential IT talent, she says. “We’re looking to help companies with their goals around diversity,” Schlosser adds. “We know that diverse teams really help fuel innovation in technology companies.”

The MHTA also is looking to collaborate with a Washington–based organization called Apprenti, which would develop an IT apprenticeship program in Minnesota. Apprenti works with businesses and postsecondary schools to develop curricula to create paid apprenticeships at companies while developing IT skills.

In late February, the MHTA’s TechTalent event brought together state government leaders, economic development organizations, Minnesota Fortune 500’s Target Corp. and C.H. Robinson Worldwide, and Minneapolis–based tech firms Code42 Software and SPS Commerce to discuss ways businesses are working to attract, develop, and retain IT talent.

“The MHTA is building the workforce challenge into all of our events throughout the year so that it’s not just a one-time discussion,” Schlosser says. “The organization is really focused on bringing people together to meet this challenge.”

A culture of attraction

Of course, businesses also have to meet that challenge themselves. Alan Benson, assistant professor in the Department of Work and Organizations at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, has studied tech companies that have built a strong reputation for attracting and keeping IT talent. He believes that they offer lessons for businesses of all kinds.

Companies like Glassdoor and Airbnb, Benson says, “are generally more flexible as to where you can work” and when you can do your work. Some choose to work long hours, particularly on “projects that interest them.” Another draw, Benson says, is “a degree of professional autonomy.”

“A lot of the larger firms offer days where [employees] can be working on business-relevant projects that they might not be able to work on directly,” Benson says. The idea behind this is “to attract people who are creative and show initiative. These are people who are going to identify problems on their own where they say, ‘Look, I can fix this, but you’ll need to give me some space to do so.’ ”

Another motivator, Benson says, is helping them develop career paths “that reward them in the ways they want to be rewarded.” For instance, “if someone wants to be working more on bigger-picture items and get away from the computer,” the company can provide opportunities to move into areas such as project management. “These multiple opportunities for advancement offer another way to encourage people to do good work and also keep their career progression moving along the lines they’re interested in,” he adds.

“Most people who are working in technology aren't really working for technology companies.”
— Alan Benson, University of Minnesota

All of this doesn’t mean a business needs to be a cutting-edge firm such as Airbnb or Amazon to attract IT talent. In Minnesota, Benson notes, “most people who are working in technology aren’t really working for technology companies.” Those businesses include financial services, health care, retail, marketing and branding, and manufacturing. “So for a company that’s trying to attract people,” he adds, “they can do well by articulating, ‘This is what makes our industry interesting, this is what makes these jobs interesting, these are the problems we’re trying to solve.’ ”

Building a company culture that provides IT talent opportunities to be creative and grow can go a long way toward solving one of the biggest workforce challenges companies of all kinds face.

Gene Rebeck is TCB’s northern Minnesota correspondent.

Dunwoody Launches Cybersecurity Program

Citing the increased demand for cybersecurity professionals, Dunwoody College of Technology will be offering a new bachelor’s degree in cybersecurity.

The bachelor’s completion program starts in the fall and will be offered as a four-semester program. Targeted to working professionals who already have a two-year degree in computer networking, courses will be taught in the evening in a lecture and lab format.

“This new program will prepare students to successfully prevent, troubleshoot, and mitigate security issues on any number of computing devices, a hot and high-paying commodity in today’s job market,” says Rob Bentz, Dunwoody’s dean of computer technology, in a prepared statement.

Hands-on projects will include cyberattack simulations. Dunwoody, based in Minneapolis, already provides training in computer networking and web development.

The cybersecurity degree requires coursework in systems and software security, scripting for cyber professionals, forensics for networks and operating systems, cyber warfare, business for cybersecurity, data protection laws, and risk mitigation.

—TCB staff