Demand for IT exposes skills gap at white-collar level
Reposted from The Business Journal | by Matt Evans
Has the Triad's skills gap hit the white-collar world?
Manufacturers in the region have long lamented the difficulty of finding qualified workers, who would be considered blue-collar, even as overall unemployment has remained high. Now, just last week, the CEO of Inmar Inc. told Winston-Salem City Council members that his retail technology and reverse logistics firm, which is considering a major expansion in the city, is finding it difficult to fill a number of information technology jobs from the available pool of Triad workers. It's something the firm has to consider for its future growth.
"We have to be sure over the next 10 years … that there can be a ready talent pool of the right skills for us to draw from," Inmar’s David Mounts said. "We compete against other companies in larger cities with larger talent pools."
Of course, Mounts was in the process of requesting $1.75 million in economic incentives from the city to go along with more than $1 million from the county in return for the promise of keeping 686 existing jobs in the area and creating 212 new ones. (Both the city and county agreed to the requests, but Inmar’s decision is still pending.)
But it's true that Triad recruiters for tech experts and other skilled but desk-bound specialists are busier now than they have been for years, and they're not always finding the right person for the job.
"We're working on filling more jobs than we really can with our current staff of recruiters," said Bill Martineau, vice president of the IT-focused Martineau Recruiting Technology in Kernersville. His firm's billings just in January equaled 25 percent of total billing in all of 2011, he said, but all that activity is revealing a mismatch between employer expectations and candidate skills and demands.
"All my clients are saying, 'Find me someone locally, I don’t want the expense of relocating someone,'" Martineau said. "But there’s a finite number of people here."
Some recruiters are encountering similar issues outside the information technology realm as well. Lisha Akers, Greensboro branch manager at staffing firm Manpower Inc., said her office saw a dramatic increase in executive placement requests in 2011 compared to 2010 (See related list, page 28). Hardest to fill were those jobs requiring specialized skills in areas such as accounting, finance or procurement or in professions such as insurance where licenses and certifications need to be kept up to date.
"There are still so many workers out there, but just not always with the same skill sets that companies are looking for," Akers said. "(Those who are displaced) need to be taking a class to update their accounting skills or their HR certifications or whatever it may be. Technology has taken over, so if you're not up to date you’re going to get left behind."
There are a myriad of training resources in the region that can help a job candidate bridge a skills gap, including community colleges, universities and for-profit schools. But when it comes to white-collar workers, the gaps that most concern many employers are in the so-called "soft skills" related to communication, globalization and decision-making, said Mercy Eyadiel, executive director of employer relations at the Wake Forest University Schools of Business.
"Once (candidates) enter the organization, how comfortable are they going to be navigating change and dealing with ambiguity and uncertainty? Because that's the state of play for a lot of organizations now," she said.
Such skills can be taught, and Eyadiel said Wake Forest’s business programs put a lot of emphasis on them. Employers are making sure that those "soft skills" are present in candidates alongside any needed technical skills by hiring more consistently out of their internship pools than they may have in the past, she added.
Employer involvement needed
But employers are at least partly responsible for the skills gap, and they're going to have to do more to solve it if they want to actually get their jobs filled promptly, said tech recruiter Martineau. Training and professional development programs were the first things cut by many companies when times got tight after the dot-com crash in 2000 and again in 2008, and many of the jobs that would have provided experience for local technical and white-collar workers today have been shipped overseas in the past decade.
Employers with hard-to-fill jobs have two basic choices, he said: They can expand their search and be willing to bear the cost of relocating a candidate with an exact skill set, or they can become more flexible about their skill requirements and be willing to train a close, but not perfect, candidate.
Most employers are still resisting either move, he said, because confidence in the economy is still shaky and because they’ve been able to have their pick of recruits for so long.
But if the economy continues to recover and competition for the best employees gets even hotter, they won't have any choice.
"Part of this is a self-inflicted wound to save money, so (employers) are going to have to be able to bear some of the burden now," he said.