Tech skills gap: Straight talk on how CIOs can help

Tech skills gap: Straight talk on how CIOs can help

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May 23, 2017

Gary Beach has strong opinions about the state of the technology skills gap in the United States – and the roles that educators, CIOs, and workers have to play in improving tech competency. Beach, a former technology publishing executive with McGraw-Hill and IDG, wrote a book on the topic, The U.S.Technology Skills Gap (August 2013, John Wiley and Sons). 

How can CIOs and businesses help pitch in to train tomorrow's tech leaders? Are today's hiring managers simply too selective, chasing unicorn candidates that don’t exist? How can companies brand themselves as great places to work?

Dig in for some candid advice from Beach, based on his research and work with CIOs. 

The Enterprisers Project: Why are you passionate about the tech skills gap?

Beach:

The skills gap is a manifestation of another, more serious, gap I follow closely: the "education gap." In 1943, Winston Churchill said in a speech to Harvard students, "Empires of the future will be empires of the mind." If that premise remains true, and I believe it does, the future does not bode well for America. Consider this: in 2016, American high school students rank 63rd in the world in math skills. For a country that spends more on public education than any other nation, that’s a disgrace! Moreover, the further an American child proceeds in the America’s public school system the less "proficient" they become in math and science.  It should be the other way around. The "education gap" threatens the future strength of America’s economy, the ability of Americans to find employment in this era of globalization, and perhaps most concerning, the future ability of the United States to develop strong information and cyber security programs to protect our nation.

TEP:  For your book, you researched 104 years of U.S. math and science education. Were there any unexpected revelations? 

Beach: I started to research my book after reading "A Nation at Risk," a 1983 report issued by the Reagan administration that warned the dismal quality of our nation’s public education system threatened the very existence of our nation. My most unexpected revelation, however, was that the education gap appeared way before 1983.  In March 1942, the U.S War Department began implementing the Army General Classification Test to "negate the impact of public schooling." The test reported nearly 40 of young Americans who completed the test had the cognitive capabilities of an eight-year-old. That startled me! America’s education gap has been widening for 75 years.

TEP: Since your book was published, how has the math and education system changed? What about the skills gap? 

Beach: The American education system is too beholden to politics and powerful teacher unions. The Trump administration's focus on school choice and Common Core testing is misguided. There are more important issues confronting our nation. 

At the very top of my list is the recruitment of the best and brightest to teach. Pay them a salary competitive with business. The quality of the American public education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers. With millions of baby boomer K-12 teachers heading into retirement in the coming decade, a national priority must be teacher recruitment. Lee Iacocca says it best: "In a purely rational society the best of us would teach, and the rest of us would find something else to do."  

I would also restructure the U.S. Department of Education into 12 education regions and give those regions the authority to structure education systems focused on the economic activity of the region. 

TEP: You've written that both corporations and workers must take responsibility for the skills gap. Why is it a shared responsibility, and how can workers do their part? 

Beach: The narrative goes like this: Employers claim workers do not have the skills needed for the posted jobs. Prospective job candidates say they have most of the desired skills but employers are being too selective. There is merit to that complaint – 800-word job descriptions for low-level tech jobs are easy to find.  

Employers must shift hiring strategies designed to hire the "perfect employee" to include programs designed to augment worker skills with comprehensive career technical education offerings. 

Job candidates, on the other hand, need to embrace the notion that in a fast-paced economy, skill demands are evolving. And so should their skills. Education is now a lifelong endeavor. It is the primary responsibility of workers to remain committed to schooling and learning at all stages of their career. Particularly if workers wish to participate in the growing gig economy.

TEP:  What are a couple of the most creative ways you've seen CIOs try to bridge the technology talent gap?

Beach: I get asked this question a lot. It has a simple answer. Does your company have a business strategy? Of course it does. What about a technology strategy? Most do. But what about a skills, or talent, strategy? Most don’t. That is a big mistake.  

CIOs must conduct annual audits of current staff skills. And perhaps more important, forecast out the tech strategy three years, to assess what skills will be more important, and less important, in the future.  

Another key component of a talent strategy is branding your company as a great place to work. Stop wasting time sending HR personnel to local job fairs to stand behind draped cafeteria tables. If your firm is in a rural area, consider forming a regional talent co-operative with other firms in the area to get more talent to move to your location.

TEP: What advice do you have for CIOs facing technology talent shortages? What key steps do you believe all CIOs should take? 

Beach: CIOs, and their companies, can survive this talent tsunami by committing to personal and professional life-long learning. Our public education model must hire the best to teach. Businesses must be willing to lend skilled employees to local public schools to teach programming and computer science.  

CIOs should ease up on the "bachelors degree required" strategy. Try it with your next hire. I guarantee you will be surprised. Rely less on resumes. One tech exec I know refuses to look at resumes. Instead, he only reviews a candidate's profile on social media sites. As Dr. Klaus Schwab, co-founder of the World Economic Forum, said, "In the future talentism is the new capitalism." He’s right, and if your firm wants to produce more capital, produce more talent.

Laurianne McLaughlin is Content Director for The Enterprisers Project, delivering analysis and advice for the IT leadership community. Previously, she served as Editor-in-Chief at InformationWeek.com and Managing Editor at CIO.com. 

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