Why IT Managers Are Desperate for Employees with Soft Skills
One of Ephraim McLean’s favorite things to tell his students is that he started working in the IT industry back in 1962. “My students gasp,” he said in a recent interview. “They say, ‘that’s 54 years ago, I wasn’t even born.’ The guy next to him says, ‘hell, my father wasn’t even born then.’”
McLean got his start working for Procter & Gamble, first as a factory manager and later doing systems work installing a plant payroll. He left the company in 1965 to earn his masters and Ph.D. degrees at MIT. After graduating he joined the faculty at UCLA and later took a faculty position at Georgia State University in Atlanta, where he’s been ever since. Over the last several decades he’s witnessed tectonic shifts within the IT industry as it’s evolved from an ancillary part of the business into a vital, customer-facing role. “Working with companies in the ’70s and ’80s, IT was clearly a very technical field; and the idea that it could lead to a top management career seemed unlikely,” he said. “It wasn’t even until 1983 when you began to see the first CIO job titles.”
Today, demand for high-skilled IT professionals is higher than ever. According to data from Modis, a tech staffing agency, tech employment is expected to grow 18 percent by 2022, outpacing average job growth by more than seven percentage points. This demand has led to a growth in IT salaries, which are expected to rise by 5.3 percent this year. But while technical skills are still in high demand, hiring managers often complain that job candidates severely lack what are traditionally considered “soft” skills. A 2014 survey of companies found large skill gaps in critical thinking/problem-solving, professionalism/work ethic, leadership, and written communications. “I remember during the ’80s and ’90s that I would talk to CIOs and ask what kinds of people they were looking to hire,” said McLean. “What are the skill sets, the attributes you’re looking for? And to a one they would say ‘problem solving, critical thinking skills, interpersonal skills, and the ability to work well with others.’ And I said, ‘wow, I didn’t hear you mention IT skills; and by the way, I spoke to some of the recruiters you sent to campus, and they didn’t use any of those words. They talked about programming, about databases, and other technical skills. So do you have a disconnect in your recruiting efforts?’”
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McLean then set out to measure that disconnect. In the early ’90s he joined the research team for the the IT Trends Study, an annual survey put out by the Society for Information Management (SIM). In its quest to map ongoing trends within the IT industry, the study had been asking which skills leaders had the hardest time hiring for. For most of the survey’s existence it had focused on technical skills; but during McLean’s initial tenure, the team divided this question into two categories: hard skills and soft skills.
Flash forward to today. The SIM IT Trends study breaks the hard and soft skills into two subcategories: most difficult to find and most important to the organization. As you can see below, skills like analytics/business intelligence, cybersecurity, and information architecture dominate the technical skills section:
But if you look at the soft skills section, you see skills like strategic planning, leadership, and holistic thinking listed.
So why are we seeing this shift? Because every company is becoming, in essence, a technology company, with that technology directly interfacing with customers. And when that’s the case, you need technologists who can step up and undertake leadership roles — roles that will allow them to weave IT into a company’s core strategy.
“If there’s an overarching question, it is whether IT is becoming more strategic,” said McLean. “And as long as you’re looking at the list of technical skills, you’re not answering that question. But when you look at the list of soft skills, where strategic planning is number one, leadership is number two, and holistic thinking is number three, that doesn’t sound like your typical IT geek. These are things that are very important to organizational success, and our finding is that there’s growing evidence that it is becoming more strategic and that these skills are paramount for today’s IT manager.”