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Where are all the technologists? Talent shortages and what to do about them

It’s harder than ever to recruit good IT specialists, but there are some simple strategies for digital leaders to fill gaps in their teams

I have been working in the recruitment business for 25 years – and the talent shortages we are seeing now are the worst I’ve ever known.

Many of the digital leaders I speak to say talent shortages are making it hard for them to keep up with the pace of change, particularly in cyber security and software development. This is a common picture across Europe, the US and beyond.

It’s not just tech, of course. The various and complex effects of the pandemic mean there are shortages across society. For example, in Belgium, if you’re looking for a cleaner, you’ll be looking for about seven months on average; some of our top restaurants are open only three days a week because of a lack of top chefs; and some students have been given a pass without taking their exams because of a chronic shortage of teachers to teach them.

Only about 70% of the working-age population is actually working. And of the other 30%, only 2.9% are actively seeking a job.

It’s tempting to say that the war for talent is actually over already – talent has won the battle. But in fact, there are a number of strategies that digital leaders can employ to fight back.

Flexibility first

First, be flexible in your requirements. I still regularly see companies that are demanding a 100% fit (or even 110%!) against their experience and capability wish list. But they will almost certainly lose out in one of two ways – they either won’t find that “perfect candidate”, or they will overpay for them. 

Instead of looking for that complete match, shift to 80% instead – the other 20% can almost always be met through training, support and development once in the job.

Another flexibility is around age. The most sought-after candidates are in the 35-49 age bracket. But don’t rule out the under-35s or the over-50s. There are brilliant people in both groups – one with all the potential for the future, the other with invaluable experience and work knowhow.

Upskilling and cross-training

This brings us to another absolutely key approach: to invest in training and upskilling. I have one client who is looking ahead and can see that they will have a significant software development skills requirement in about four years’ time. So they are training their existing software engineers now, so they can move into these roles when the time comes. There is a growing emphasis among digital leaders on increasing the amount of internal cross-training into tech.

This is something that can be applied externally, too. Look outside the business for talent that can be supported into a tech career – people who may be in other fields right now but have the right aptitude, mindset and ambition. Think about apprenticeship schemes and internships, too. Such individuals tend to be loyal as well – they appreciate the chance they’ve been given and are less likely to run off to a better offer.

Making the working model work

Another critically important question, of course, is the working model. The remote and hybrid working that sprang up during Covid has changed the game. It is both an opportunity and a threat. An opportunity because you can widen your net hugely and consider candidates who aren’t 10km from the office but 1,000km or more. At the same time, it’s a threat because it means competitors based far away could poach your staff, too. Some companies are dealing with 30%-plus attrition rates.

Make sure your model is right. What do your people want? Are you meeting this? It’s complicated because different people want different things. Our research found that a significant block of professionals want to go into the office as much as possible, while another significant block want to go in as little as they can. There weren’t very many people in between.

It’s sensible to set a minimum and make sure staff know they are welcome to come in more often if they want to. Whatever your policy, make sure it’s clear, well-communicated and understood.

Remember also that although remote working has proven surprisingly good for productivity and helps many people achieve a better work/life balance, at the same time it does reduce the engagement a lot of staff feel with the business, can affect inclusivity, and become a strain on mental health. Some struggle with constant video calls and a sense of isolation.

That’s why it is important to move to the right hybrid model, where people are able to meet and connect – and also why you need to increase the level of HR and wellbeing support. We have a mental wellbeing hub at Nash Squared, for example, that anyone can access for tips and resources.

Know the price of your people

Finally, with retention, so much comes down to good line managers. Being close to team members, understanding how they are doing, what issues they are facing – these are invaluable. Every manager should know the “price” of their team members. This may be financial, of course, but it could be other things. For some, the commute may be their biggest issue. A bonus won’t solve their issue if their “price” is distance from the office. Understand each person’s price and do what you can to meet it, without changing the DNA of the company culture.

It’s a complex mix with no easy answers. But businesses that are more flexible, that understand the price of their talent, and that are open to thinking laterally, are much more likely to be able to score some significant victories in the ongoing war for tech talent.

Ronny Lommelen is managing director of Belux for Harvey Nash IT Consulting

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