Digital transformation.

Undeterred by pandemic-induced business slowdowns, the war for IT talent continues to escalate, putting more pressure on IT and business leaders to rethink how they recruit and groom a workforce to support and accelerate ongoing digital transformation efforts.

US tech employment remained flat in 2020, as organizations dealt with the uncertainties of COVID-19, but is projected to grow 2% this year, accounting for 12.4 million employees in 2021, according to CompTIA’s Cyberstates 2021 report.

Looking beyond the pandemic, companies are scrambling to assemble the right skill sets and technical competencies as they accelerate digital innovation across all corners of the business. Nearly three-quarters (69%) of respondents to IDG’s 2021 State of the CIO survey said they were re-evaluating IT skill sets in the wake of shifting priorities. Technology integration and implementation skills were in top demand, cited by 47% of respondents, while soft skills in areas like change management (36%) and strategy building (34%) were also highly coveted. On the technical front, respondents are actively looking to beef up knowledge in cybersecurity (37%), data science/analytics (31%) and AI/machine learning (28%).

“We are seeing the early battles that will quickly become the next big war for talent,” says Jonathan Sears, Principal – Americas Solutions and Technology Leader, People Advisory Services, at Ernst & Young LLP (EY US). “For IT functions operating on a limited or constrained budget, it’s going to be difficult to compete. Transformation efforts will slow down to a crawl if you can’t get and keep the right talent in the door over a multiyear period.”

Nurturing the talent pool

There are a number of changes IT organizations need to make to address workforce challenges as we turn a corner into the post-COVID-19 period. These strategies can help attract and retain key IT talent while nurturing the skills required to drive the accelerated shift to digital business.

Lean into hybrid work structures. As workforces transition back to the office, it’s clear that in most industries, some form of remote work is here to stay. While IT teams (and other back-office functions) have traditionally been expected to be physically present in an office, many companies will move forward with hybrid schedules, increasing the need for teams to hone their collaboration and project management skills to extend practices such as agile development to remote colleagues. Collaboration tools like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Slack and other videoconferencing applications will still play a role in agile conventions like daily scrums and standups. Continued expansion of cloud applications and managed services can also help hybrid IT teams work effectively by offloading activities like patching and network monitoring that once required an in-office presence.

Beyond the logistics of coordinating schedules and continued emphasis on collaboration, companies will need to implement policies that address everything from bonus and promotion structures to benefits and perks that are tailored to both in-person and remote work models. For example, IT employees opting to come back to the office are going to seek out a workplace that’s exciting and collaborative, infused with the old amenities such as day care, fitness centers and coffee bars. Those continuing in a hybrid or remote work model will be looking for policies and stipends that address such issues as upgrading internet bandwidth, outfitting their office with a giant monitor or standing desk, or offering offsite health perks such as home exercise equipment or gym memberships.

“Flexibility is going to be the key — there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to this,” says Sears. “Depending on what you define as your workspace, the expectations will be different. For companies to attract, engage and retain IT professionals, they’re going to need a response for every one of those different personas.”

Evolve recruiting policies to account for a larger talent pool. The emphasis on talent acquisition, buttressed by the reality that employees can work from anywhere, means companies will need to update their practices and learn to fish in different pools. The upside is the ability to cast a wider net; the downside is there will be greater competition for qualified talent, as there are no longer geographic limits. Now might be the time to consider “gig” workers to help fill the gaps, particularly in certain geographic regions.

“You will need a disciplined approach for where you want to acquire skills,” says Sears. “Your arbitrage strategy to keep costs in check, and how you balance the roles as to who’s in the office and who’s not, will be really important.”

Enable a culture of continuous learning. The growing need to upskill and reskill existing employees to address the skills gap, coupled with employees’ interest in advancing their own knowledge, highlights the importance of continuous learning. Today’s digital initiatives require a technology staff versed in areas like cloud technologies, AI/machine learning, advanced analytics, DevOps and cybersecurity.

In addition to technical competencies, there is growing emphasis on IT personnel having a deep understanding of the business, along with soft skills in areas like project management, change management and leadership. With IT departments spread across geographic locations and potentially operating from hybrid work models, there will also be a requirement for greater interpersonal and communications skills to enable productive collaboration.

“IT folks have been steeped in technology, but now they definitely need to have that business lens as well,” says Jacob Thomas, Senior Manager, People Advisory Services (PAS) at EY US. “On the digital front and with the remote/hybrid style, people who can collaborate, fail fast, rebound quickly, be creative and can do all that virtually is a rare talent pool. It’s something people can learn, but they’ll need to learn quickly.”

As with the myriad other challenges IT organizations face, seeding and cultivating a mix of technical and business-savvy talent will be a key differentiator that could define an organization’s ability to compete successfully in the digital era.

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Disclaimer: The views expressed by the authors are not necessarily those of Ernst & Young LLP or other members of the global EY organization.