Picture this: You have a senior employee who’s been with your company for a long time, and they know all the ins and outs of the various programs and technologies your company uses. Then they retire. Whether you expected it or not, you’re still down a valuable employee. And hiring their replacement proves to be harder than you’d thought it would be.
This just so happens to be a widespread problem, for the public sector especially.
Virtually every aspect of modern society relies on some form of technology to function optimally. While this has placed a premium on tech skills and made them highly sought-after within the global economy, there isn’t enough talent to meet the demand.
The tech talent shortage is a serious issue affecting both private and government institutions. As the world becomes more tech-reliant, businesses and government bodies require the best talent to enable them to keep up with an evolving work landscape.
Let’s look at the causes behind this talent shortage and some potential strategies for addressing it.
What is the Tech Talent Shortage?
Following the COVID-19 pandemic and its lockdowns, the global economy witnessed an unprecedented number of resignations, and 2021 was dubbed the year of the Great Resignation. Although much of society seems to have returned to a relative sense of normality, organizations still find it difficult to attract employees with the desired skills to fill the gaps within their workforce. Tech work included.
The tech talent shortage, or tech talent gap, refers to the wide disparity between the tech skills that organizations need to achieve their goals and the available job seekers who have those skills. Many organizations are experiencing difficulties in their operations because they cannot find competent individuals to fill certain key tech roles.
Although much of the global focus today is on the possibilities of AI and its potential to replicate human work, this technological progress only amplifies the need for skilled professionals to innovate, maintain, and protect the infrastructure that will power and maintain such technology.
From data scientists and cloud architects to software developers, machine learning engineers, and cybersecurity specialists, the lack of tech talent skills continues to weigh heavily on businesses. Many cite the talent shortage as the biggest barrier to the adoption of nearly 64% of new technologies.
Other Factors for the Shortage
It’s worth noting that there are a range of other factors that are responsible for the talent shortage within the tech world, other than the pandemic. Let’s look at a few:
Retiring senior employees
The departure of retired senior employees from public service will, of course, create job openings. The fact that that most software engineers retire between the ages of 45 and 65 makes this issue even more pressing. There’s also the possibility that younger tech employees who are just joining public service may lack the experience and skills needed to fill these vacant senior-level positions.
A recurring theme of the talent shortage is how the pandemic permanently changed the employment landscape. Before, the belief in job security gave employers all the negotiation power to dictate the conditions for employment. Today, workers’ focus has shifted from simply finding employment to searching for opportunities that provide flexible working arrangements that allow for a good work-life balance.
According to the World Economic Forum, 75% of workers want flexibility in their work schedule and 69% felt that employment contracts should be based on results, not hours. And according to Gartner, 65% of IT employees revealed that their decision to stay at an organization would be highly impacted by whether or not there were flexible work options.
Even as the big tech companies continue to engage in massive layoffs to recover losses and please shareholders, tech employees are showing no signs of compromising on their newly acquired principles.
Frequent job changes
Another reason why the tech talent gap continues to persist is the interconnectedness of tech skills. Although the discipline is broad, it’s quite easy for practitioners to shift from one focus area to the other.
Take tech workers, for instance. While employees in other sectors switch roles after about 3.2 years on average, tech workers do so every 2.7 years. Such a high turnover rate makes it difficult for organizations to find and retain qualified tech talent.
Stagnant hiring processes
While not inherently responsible for creating the problem, outdated tech talent recruitment practices further the skills gap by failing to adapt to more modern practices.
The longer a tech talent role stays open, the more costly it becomes. However, only 18% of HR professionals think that speed to hire is a critical metric to watch. This leaves many organizations with slow hiring processes that could require up to seven weeks to fill a single role.
Emphasis on formal degrees
The internet provides individuals with the freedom to learn anything from anywhere at their own pace. This has reduced the number of applicants seeking formal education, as virtually everyone can learn anything on YouTube, tech skills included.
While college degrees are relevant for some roles, a vast number of tech practitioners are self-taught, so they may fail to meet the minimum hiring requirements of most organizations, even though they can do the job effectively.
Why Are These Roles Hard to Fill?
Within the past year, multiple organizations have attempted to change the narrative within the industry and retain more power when it comes to recruitment. Employee retention has improved somewhat, yet the overall skill gap persists.
As technology continues to evolve and find its way into more areas of human endeavor, the demand for skilled individuals to manage the expansion does likewise. However, the inflow of talent to the sector has been unable to match its exponential growth. According to Deloitte, executives are currently “struggling to fill senior technical roles like system architects, cybersecurity specialists, and those requiring AI expertise.”
One consequence of a thriving private sector is that it often pulls away the best talent. As the job market becomes increasingly competitive, government institutions can no longer rely solely on the old incentives that used to attract workers.
Today, private companies generally pay more and offer better benefits than the government. A software engineer stands to make more money working for any of the major tech companies like Google, Amazon, Meta, Apple, and Microsoft than their counterparts in government.
For instance, while an Information Technology Manager with the federal government can earn around $125,000 annually, their counterpart at Google will take home between an estimated $202,000 to $318,000 within the same period.
If government agencies hope to stand a chance at attracting top talent in this highly competitive space, then they need to let go of old notions and rebrand their value proposition to reflect the desires of the 21st-century employee who won’t settle for just job security and a pension.
Is Upskilling the Answer?
Given that the tech challenge shortage is a global problem that affects both the private and public sectors, government agencies could be better off training their current talent on the skills they require rather than competing in the job market for new candidates who have these skills.
As simple as it sounds, this could be the exact approach that changes the tide. Through upskilling and reskilling programs, government agencies can manufacture the talent they require to fill in the skill gaps. Employees who show a basic competence for critical thinking can be further trained to expand their skill sets to meet the specific needs of their respective agencies.
This employee retention strategy focuses on those who are already engaged in public service, but it doesn’t have to stop there. More extensive training programs can be opened to the public so that anyone who desires a government job can take a specific course to come in and fill a specific need. Like through college courses or eLearning programs that provide training on both soft and technical skills.
Tech Talent Recruitment Strategies
While there’s no straightforward solution to solving the tech talent shortage, the following strategies offer a starting point for IT leaders and policymakers to boost government employee retention and recruitment within the space.
One of the fastest ways government agencies can fill the tech talent gaps within their organization is by promoting junior employees to fill the vacancies left by retired senior staff.
Promoting talent from within the same department not only allows for smooth continuation but also encourages other employees to work harder. By giving more responsibility to an employee who has performed exceptionally, organizations can promote a culture that rewards hard work and promises career growth.
Offer engaging work
Millennial and Gen Z workers don’t just want to work to pay their bills; they want to be engaged.
Most tech-skilled people are outliers seeking opportunities to create or handle disruptive new tech. Conversations within the tech space normally revolve around who’s building what and how it’s going to change the world. This is in sharp contrast to the goal of government agencies, which are mostly tasked with keeping the status quo and ensuring compliance with regulations.
To succeed in drawing and keeping talent away from the private sector, government agencies must restructure their operational processes to provide tech workers with challenging and engaging work.
While the private sector might lure programmers with the promise of breaking boundaries, government agencies can reemphasize the importance of public services and inspire tech talents to help build systems that would make them run efficiently.
Rethink outdated recruitment and management practices
Flexibility remains one of the biggest factors tech workers consider before choosing a job. To compete favorably in this job market, public sector organizations must rethink the effectiveness of their old recruitment and management practices.
Take college degrees, for instance. Although they help recruiters identify top talent in other disciplines, the tech scene is filled with plenty of capable individuals who acquired their skills via informal means. For example, someone well-versed in cybersecurity may have learned everything they know from the internet and from taking on freelance work.
As such, making college degrees a job requirement doesn’t ensure that the government gets the best people. On the contrary, doing so reduces the already dwindling pool of qualified candidates for the job. Like with the self-taught cybersecurity professional, for example. It would be counter-intuitive to deny them a job if they have the experience but not the degree.
Additionally, tedious and time-consuming recruitment practices, such as background checks and long onboarding processes, also need to be reviewed. While the lengthy path to a government job might not be daunting enough to deter a committed public sector job seeker, it does present many obstacles that might prove too challenging for people with in-demand skills or a more casual interest in public service.
Redefine the value proposition of government jobs
For a long while, the major incentive that government employment offered was longevity and stability. Today’s tech workers aren’t searching for either of those things.
In fact, one key characteristic of the tech industry is the frequency with which workers job-hop. While it’s impossible for the government to match the compensation that the private sector offers, they can put the mission and impact tech workers can expect to have while in service as a major incentive.
By adopting a strategic and proactive approach to talent management, government agencies will succeed in creating highly skilled teams that are also committed to serving their communities.
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