Mining a diamond in the rough

Despite a raft of available candidates, IT executives still are finding it tough to find the one person with the right combination of skills and talent.

"The combination of high-tech layoffs, diminished demand for new network positions and an uptick in offshore outsourcing created a pool of highly skilled, unemployed IT professionals in the U.S. Yet despite the number of available candidates, many IT managers report they still struggle when trying to fill mission-critical positions such as security manager and network architect.

The positions posing the most challenges today are enterprisewide project managers and security managers with business knowledge," says David Foote, president and chief research officer for Foote Partners LLC. "Many companies are moving out of the siloed approach to IT and are aligning how they approach IT with their line of business."

Recent research shows that new technologies such as XML and Linux and business skills such as project management and process knowledge top network managers' list of must-haves for new hires. Positions such as security manager and IT business planning manager can go unfilled for three months to as long as a year, and industry watchers say part of the reason jobs stay open is because today's IT professional needs to be more than technically certified.

"If you're looking at certifications when hiring, those skills don't tell you how well this candidate can maintain the network you've got to support your business," says Diane Berry, managing vice president for People3 Inc. "It's important to look at the competencies of the individual: Can they respond quickly to change? Do you they have problem-solving skills?"

Separate surveys released by Foote Partners and People3 show that project management and business process skills are as much in need as high-tech talents such as security management, database administration, XML proficiencies and Web services work. The combination of technical smarts and business savvy might not have been in demand in the past - considering IT remained in the back office of most corporations - but today's enterprise IT departments are responsible for boosting the company's bottom line.

"Hiring managers today need to find someone that knows technology but also has some expertise in their line of business," Foote says. "It's difficult to move quickly to meet business needs if you have a lot of people with specific skills. Broader capabilities are definitely needed."

This recent phenomena, the IT specialist as business-savvy manager, is taking hold with employers. Demand and compensation for certifications such as Microsoft Certified Professional and Certified Computing Professional dropped about 13 percent this year, while pay for certifications in the areas of project management, security, systems administration and engineering, and network operating systems each increased in the past 12 months.

While demand for specific technical expertise such as Oracle database administration is still high, hiring managers say skills listed on a re‚sume‚ don't necessarily represent what a job candidate can do.

"I came across many (candidates) who did not appear to have the experience their r‚sum‚ touted," says Chris Holbert, director of IT at medical device manufacturer North American Scientific in Chatsworth, Calif.

Holbert relies solely on in-house staff to manage five locations and support business systems such as ERP and CRM applications. Holbert's department also is responsible for network security, LAN/WAN services and voice applications for North American Scientific. He says new skills coming to the forefront across the range of technologies his staff of four handles include business and IT process skills, network architecture expertise and security management.

"We have had to change how we manage or structure IT projects with business lines to address changes in how technology is used and deployed," Holbert says.

And to do that, Holbert doesn't look for candidates with any particular expertise, he says. Rather, he seeks job candidates with "analytical problem-solving skills and those who are able to work within an ambiguous and ever-changing environment," he says.

People3's Berry says when looking to fill a position, an IT hiring manager must first distinguish if the specific high-tech skill is a short-term need or a long-term requirement for the company's infrastructure and line of business. If it's a quick fix such as rolling out a new application, firms could outsource that job and save on the long-term budget commitment. But if it the skill will be needed to years to come, hiring managers should first look in their own IT departments for potential candidates.

At his company, Holbert says, he'd train an in-house person in a new technical skill if the worker had the ambition to learn and the flexibility to do more than one IT task.

In fact, finding the IT skills and, more importantly, the desire to learn more skills in-house could be a hiring manager's best bet when faced with staffing a hard-to-fill position. According to People3, competencies such as working well in a team environment, adapting to change, and the willingness and ability to learn new skills differ from technical savvy. And many IT managers could have the ideal candidate for a new position already on staff.

"If you have those types of IT employees in-house, it makes a lot of sense to retrain them," Berry says.

Holbert agrees. He says hiring managers must "be flexible and willing to build on existing skill sets with insourced and outsourced training."

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