IT hiring: 5 challenges with emerging technologies

Today’s IT talent shortage already makes it tough to fill key roles. Emerging technologies like AI and machine learning exacerbate the problem
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As the pace of innovation quickens, companies of all sizes are racing to adopt the latest emerging technologies. IT teams are the technical trailblazers within most firms, making them the first to leverage new technologies. However, we face an ongoing and potentially prolonged talent shortage, both in IT and beyond, which threatens to leave our technical teams depleted for years to come.

Already, we only have 52 unemployed workers for every 100 job openings in the United States, according to Lightcast, and some of the most severe talent shortages are in emerging technical fields. This lack of human capital spills over to technological capital, hindering the adoption of emerging technologies and limiting the ability of organizations to extract value out of new innovations.

Here are five key challenges associated with emerging technologies that companies are facing due to the talent shortage.

1. Facing a scarce and competitive talent market

By definition, emerging technologies don’t have an established ecosystem of workers or training providers helping to grow the talent pool in these fields. This means employers must enter a fierce competition for the scarce talent that does exist, driving up salaries in the process.

[ Also read 3 IT talent shortage challenges and how to solve them. ]

For example, IT workers with emerging AI and machine learning skills can command an extra $14,000 in salary, on average. If you are looking for experts in even more esoteric fields, the salary bumps can be even higher.

Making matters worse, even when you do hire workers with emerging skills, there’s no guarantee you will keep them very long. High-value emerging skills that are in short supply are a breeding ground for poaching. In 2021, for example, the turnover rate for data scientists was 26 percent, meaning that most teams lost at least one in four of their data scientists over the course of the year. This further drives up salaries and keeps technical teams short-staffed – if they were ever fully staffed to begin with.

2. Buying shiny new tools that sit on the shelf

When new technology enters the hype cycle, companies often buy the technology without doing their due diligence beforehand to ensure their teams have the skills needed to use it. As a result, these technologies are often underutilized until the company can hire or train for the skills needed to use them.

Alternatively, the company may get stuck in an endless implementation loop, in which they must rely upon outside vendors or professional services firms to make use of their new tech. These can be costly scenarios, akin to buying a Tesla for a toddler – it will look great, cost a lot of money, and just sit in the garage collecting dust until the child learns how to drive.

Implementing new technology without ensuring your teams have the skills to use it is akin to buying a Tesla for a toddler – it will look great, cost a lot of money, and just sit in the garage collecting dust until the child learns how to drive.

3. Becoming geographically constrained

Many emerging technologies spring to life near a limited set of research universities, and it takes years, if not decades, for knowledge of these technologies to spread. The rise of remote work does open opportunities to hire these workers from anywhere but recruiting workers in more expensive locations can cause costs to balloon quickly and may not be the right fit for all organizations or emerging technologies.

Take the metaverse, which many pundits say will be the next evolution of the internet – or even of communication itself. Companies that are hoping to build innovations for the metaverse have a limited number of locations where they can source people with the right skills. Nearly one in three workers with knowledge of augmented or virtual reality, for instance, are in California, and over 55 percent are concentrated in just four states: California, New York, Washington, and Texas. This means that any aspiring metaverse magnates in the plains of Nebraska may be plain out of luck.

4. Decreased diversity

When you aim to hire workers with arcane skills, you are already recruiting from a diminished pool of talent. For emerging technologies, in particular, this often breeds a heterogenous candidate pool, preventing you from increasing diversity on your team through new hires alone.

Already, only 21 percent of software developers are female and only 10 percent are either Black or Hispanic. When you further constrain this already limited pool of diverse talent by requesting rare emerging skills it makes it even harder to diversify your talent pipeline.

5. Individual contributors begin masquerading as managers

When companies look for managers of teams working with emerging technologies, they often turn first to practitioners with the deepest understanding of the technology. In fact, close to 70 percent of managers overseeing teams responsible for disruptive technologies – such as AI and machine learning, blockchain, or other emerging fields – have no prior managerial experience.

However, a deep understanding of technology doesn’t equate to a deep understanding of managing others, which requires a different set of administrative, business, and interpersonal skills that don’t always correlate with technical mastery. This is like a school making its best teacher principal – maybe they’ll succeed, or maybe they should have stayed in the classroom.

[ Read also: What's the difference between a manager and a coach? ]

Remember, it is people, process, and technology – not the other way around. These challenges offer a stark reminder of why emerging technologies are rarely, if ever, silver bullets. If you don’t have the right people with the right skills to leverage new technology, then no amount of technical or process innovation will be able to compensate.

So the next time you’re thinking of investing in emerging technology, don’t just focus on finances or functionality. Instead, first ask whether your team has the right skills, for only then can you realize the technology’s full potential.

[ Discover how priorities are changing. Get the Harvard Business Review Analytic Services report: Maintaining momentum on digital transformation. ]

Will Markow is the Vice President of Applied Research – Talent at EMSI Burning Glass where he oversees the research and consulting team focused on strategic workforce planning and the impact of emerging technologies on the workforce.