New Rules for IT

With many employers struggling to fill information-technology jobs, recruiters are increasingly throwing away their rule books for hiring them.

Friday, April 8, 2016
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The shortage of skilled information-technology workers has been slapping recruiters in the face. The harsh reality has prompted some employers to do away with traditional practices and rethink, re-evaluate and re-energize their efforts.

A good example is ThoughtWorks, a global IT consultancy. Last year, its London office hosted 200 different community events designed to attract all sorts of people who shared at least one comment trait -- a passion for technology. In December, the company's 3,000 employees across six continents also celebrated the 200th birthday of Ada Lovelace, who is heralded as the world's first programmer. Many offices invited high-ranking women in technology, both inside and outside the company, to share their leadership journeys.

"For us, it's about exploring and looking at nontraditional sourcing," says Jackie Kinsey, chief leadership officer at ThoughtWorks in London. "We really need to question our practices. To inspire people to join our industry, we have to do things differently."

As many employers struggle to fill IT positions, some companies are attacking the talent shortage by recruiting outside conventional channels. From hosting events that lure closet computer geeks to offering IT boot camps, some are making headway with innovations for finding talent that no self-respecting recruiter would have ever considered in the past. People without computer-science degrees and others with just high-school degrees are now proving their self-worth in a field that was once dominated by the educated elite.

ThoughtWorks has hired a number of employees from nontechnical backgrounds, says Kinsey, pointing to a senior technical principal consultant in the U.K. whose college degree is in philosophy. When recruiting such individuals, she says, it's all about their attitude, aptitude and integrity.

"It's their passion [for technology] that's really important," she says. "It opens up a broader spectrum [of job candidates]. That, in itself, is a different level of diversity and inclusivity we want to support."

Although the company has extended its recruiting reach for more than a decade, the IT-worker shortage has shined a spotlight on new targets. Last year, it partnered with Code First Girls, a U.K. organization that works with companies and young women to increase the number of women in technology and entrepreneurship. Two of the organization's employees are now based in the company's office to help promote both the profession and the global consultancy, says Kinsey.

As part of its plan to attract more women to IT, she says, the company also piloted "Back to IT" in 2007, which targeted women who took a career break from their technology jobs to raise children, for example. Through traditional advertising, 60 "returners" attended. They completed several online assessments to determine their IT-skill level and were then interviewed on-site. Twelve of them were selected to attend the company's four–week, nonpaid training program covering new computer languages and were encouraged to apply for IT jobs at the company. Three were hired.

"The course instilled confidence [and] took them through [computer] languages, enabling them to remember all the things they could do before," Kinsey says, adding that an offshoot of the same program called Vapasi, which is Hindi for "return" or "come back," was offered in Bengal, India, in 2014. Of the 17 registrants who showed up for the course, 14 were invited to participate in boot-camp training held over four Saturdays. One woman was later hired as a software quality assurance tester.

"We're continually innovating," Kinsey says. "If working practices don't change, they're going to lag behind. [Recruiters] need to be bold in looking at what they're doing . . . ."

Opening Doors

Out of the 5 million open jobs in the United States, more than 500,000 are in the IT field, including many positions such as mobile-applications developer, user-experience designer or cloud-integration specialist -- jobs that didn't exist a decade ago, according to the Employer Playbook, Best Practices and Tools to Recruit Technology Talent from Nontraditional Sources, published by CEB, a business-management and technology advisory company in Arlington, Va.

The Playbook predicts huge industry growth and strains:

* By 2020, there will be 1 million more IT jobs than computer-science students in the United States.

* By 2022, 1.3 million IT and cyber-security jobs will need to be filled.

* Two-thirds of the IT jobs employers are demanding talent for come from non-tech industries, such as healthcare, manufacturing or banking.

* Seventy-five percent of open IT jobs are at the middle or entry level.

* The top 10 cities with the greatest demand for IT jobs are New York, Washington, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, Dallas, Houston, Seattle and Baltimore. For every eight IT job openings in these cities, the current talent pool yields only five workers.

Employers can't afford to continue doing more of the same when it comes to recruiting IT professionals. Roughly a dozen companies, including ThoughtWorks and MasterCard, are featured in this report for their unique recruiting practices.

MasterCard developed a customized apprenticeship program at its IT headquarters in St. Louis through a partnership with Launchcode, a nonprofit IT-job-placement program, also in St. Louis, says Jean Martin, talent-solutions architect at CEB.

"They broadly defined what would be required in [each] tech position," she says. "Then they engineered a set of job requirements that could be converted into a development program that Launchcode could provide. [Participants] are funneled through an often-12-to-24-month development program and MasterCard commits to hiring those individuals."

While many employers still favor job candidates with technology degrees, the business case for these training and development programs is clear. Martin points to a 45-percent reduction in attrition when training, then hiring such candidates, as reported by at least 30 other companies that engage in similar programs. Another advantage, she says, is that these programs also "fast-cycle the diversification of the technology workforce."

Another way to broaden the IT candidate pool is to relax job requirements. Martin says that's exactly what happened at AMX by Harmon in Richardson, Texas, a Launchcode client and part of the Harman Professional Division dedicated to integrating audio-visual solutions. Matt Glover, former corporate director of global IT at AMX, convinced HR and his own IT team that many IT roles don't require advanced technical degrees, says Martin.

"He did a pilot of where the relaxed requirements could be rolled out and studied to see performance," she says, adding that Glover also built partnerships with local IT training programs to directly source candidates with alternative backgrounds. Martin says one employee, Chelsea Fitzgerald, was an art major who went on to become an IT technician. She describes that move as "extremely successful."

Despite the shortage of IT talent, there is no shortage of recruiting success stories.

Brendan Lind, executive director at Launchcode, which has offices in St. Louis, Kansas City, Miami and Providence, R.I., says his organization has helped employers fill IT jobs in 12 states that include California, New York, Utah and Arkansas. It screens job candidates -- many without IT degrees -- for computer skills and aptitude through an online assessment and face-to-face or Skype interviews, and then matches them up with paid employer apprenticeships that are typically three months long.

However, there's a big difference between candidates who are simply passionate about IT and those who actually possess IT aptitude or skills. When individuals fall short on the skill or knowledge side, Lind says, the organization encourages them to complete free massive online open courses, or MOOCs, that are offered by more than 30 universities, including Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to help them secure their first technology job. With help from local educators and trainers at St. Louis Community College and Washington University in St. Louis, Launchcode also offered a free programming seminar for 250 people in January based on Harvard's free, online course.

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Companies pay Launchcode $5,000 for every candidate hired, which most HR professionals would agree is a bargain for quality talent.

"We find these people by working with community organizations, through our public relations [efforts] and partnerships with different nontraditional educators," Lind says, referring to organizations such as Tech Talent South and Anyone Can Learn to Code. "We have built a network of people recommended to us who have talent and great potential but haven't had access to opportunity."

So far, the St. Louis office has placed 400 people in apprenticeship programs. Of those, 320 have been hired in IT jobs at more than 100 different companies.

"Our motto is, 'If you can do the job, you should get the job,' " says Lind, pointing to a bus driver who became a systems engineer and a valet who was hired as a coder. "If you only consider people who have a four-year degree in computer science and three to five years of work experience, you're only hitting the tip of the iceberg."

Three-Way Partnership

Other companies in fast-growing IT sectors are also relying on unconventional recruiting methods to fill job gaps.

Solutionary, a cyber-security company in Omaha, Neb., currently has more than 50 job vacancies for positions such as security analyst, network-security engineer and security architect.

For years, says Arlin Halstead, vice president of HR at the 425-employee company, Solutionary has been an active recruiter of veterans; however, the field of cyber security is now so specialized that the shortage of skilled talent among the veterans' ranks is much worse.

In 2014, he says, the SANS Institute, which specializes in information-security and cyber-security training, approached him with a new recruiting idea. The Institute, based in Bethesda, Md., developed the VetSuccess program, which consists of a six-to-eight week program, depending on the curriculum selected. One course focuses on security essentials; another on hacker tools, techniques, exploits and incident handling; and the last covers intrusion detection. Halstead was asked if Solutionary would be interested in sponsoring veterans for such training.

"We were very excited about it," Halstead says, adding that SANS promotes the program via placement agencies that help veterans transition to civilian jobs. "They largely had the program in mind. They had done their homework in conjunction with the U.S. Air Force. We helped tweak it a bit and helped promote it and participate in it."

The VetSuccess program is funded through employer sponsorships. Employers pay $30,000 for individual scholarships in exchange for a two-year work commitment from each program graduate. Participants not only get a good-paying job -- generally earning between $70,000 and $120,000 a year -- but also receive a certification that's highly desirable in the cyber-security industry.

Since the program was launched last year, all 18 participants have graduated. Halstead says his company has hired six veterans who are "doing fantastic." Although not all participants held military IT jobs, he says, they each possessed some technical knowledge or an aptitude for IT that was discovered through an online employer assessment supplied through SANS.

In the spring, he says, HR is stepping up its commitment by exclusively sponsoring two SANS academies in hopes of hiring more graduates. Over the next 24 months, SANS also plans to offer at least four more academies, including one this spring dedicated to female veterans.

"I completely expect the program to evolve," says Halstead. "Our ultimate goal is to have more people in this [program] so we can start to build a consistent pipeline for everybody who needs cyber talent, which is so important to our country right now."


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