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Why the global IT skills shortage needs to be addressed

Nick Marsh, Managing Director, Harvey Nash Executive Search APAC

With technology playing an increasingly important role in our daily lives, enterprises are not only prioritising strengthening their investments in IT systems, but also their investment in those managing IT. 

For many companies, attracting and retaining high tech staff has become their number one concern. In the recent Harvey Nash Technology Survey, 53 per cent of technology hiring managers reported a skills shortage in 2015, with 44 per cent of hiring managers expecting skills shortages to get worse in the future. The situation is particularly pertinent in Asia-Pacific. The Harvey Nash CIO Survey 2015 shows that, 71 per cent of CIOs based in the APAC region believe a skills shortage is preventing their organisations from keeping up with the pace of change, 12 per cent higher than the global average. This lack of skilled IT professional cascades down the entire function, meaning there will continue to be a lack of those well-versed in technology to fill senior roles in the future.

A recent survey from Accenture revealed that only six per cent of directors overseeing the world's largest banks have any technology experience, despite IT issues such as cyber security coming under increasing scrutiny at the boardroom level.  This lack of technology understanding is worrying as companies face continued pressure for digital expansion whilst at the same time having to defend against increasingly sophisticated cyber attacks.

IT skills lacking across all sectors
While CIOs report technology headcount has risen to a five-year high, 50 per cent of global CIOs report they are increasingly using outsourcers to supplement skills they cannot find in house.  This compares to just 25 per cent of CIOs who are looking to their outsourcers to save them money, suggesting an evolving role for outsourcers as companies are willing to spend to find the skills they need. 

Big Data and analytics were identified as the most sought after skills in the survey, followed by change management and development. The biggest fall in demand was for skills in technical architecture, enterprise architecture and business analysis. 

Lack of women in IT
The lack of talent in IT is further compounded by an absence of women in senior IT roles. The Harvey Nash CIO Survey highlights a lack of women in technology focused leadership roles, particularly in APAC. While this lack of women in IT has received significant media and political attention, the proportion of women in IT leadership roles remains stagnant year after year. 

The survey reveals the number of women in IT leadership positions - CIO, CTO or SVP title - is down two per cent from 2013, to a mere eight per cent this year. Seven per cent of APAC respondents were female IT leaders, one per cent lower than the global average; this falls to an even lower rate in markets like Hong Kong and China where just five per cent of respondents are female IT leaders. 

Many industry leaders worry that women in the region are being left behind in the global gender diversity movement. A recent OECD study showed that many of the region's top female talent that are held back by discrimination and cannot find the opportunities they want at home, are simply turning to other countries to advance their careers. And with 71 per cent of APAC CIOs believing a skills shortage is preventing their organisation from keeping up with the pace of change, this is talent the region can ill afford to lose. I have had discussions with many large companies in Hong Kong bemoaning that it is almost impossible to hire cyber security experts, with experienced talent in this space so in demand they can command seven figure salaries.

Solving the problem
With cyber attacks and breaches, like those seen at Ashley Madison or Talk Talk, gaining mass media coverage and dramatically affecting the reputation of companies, few can risk having a gap in their IT teams and as skilled IT candidates remain in high demand, many companies are opting to look overseas for talent to tackle the problem. However, the solution to increasing the number of skilled technology professionals lies closer to home. 

Identifying and nurturing IT talent
Essentially companies need to take responsibility for incubating their own talent, as with global skills shortages looming, talent will need to be cultivated and trained in-house.

There needs to be active investment in IT training across all levels of business hierarchy and a focus on shoring up the company's capabilities. This starts in the boardroom, with directors assessing if they possess the relevant IT skills to oversee business practices and offer support in the event of a major security breach or IT failure. If these skills are lacking then they need to actively look for someone who can bring this knowledge to the team. 

Next, internal corporate initiatives should be introduced to help educate teams on basic IT practices, in addition to supporting those who want to undertake more in-depth training. Internal HR initiatives aimed at increasing awareness about the opportunities in IT within an organisation can also prove effective. 

The Human Resources function has a big role to play in the solution. Those with a responsibility for internal recruitment need to take into consideration several factors when building their IT talent pipeline. The Harvey Nash Technology Survey revealed the key motivators for changing jobs among IT professionals were pay (77 per cent), work/life balance (72 per cent) and opportunities to work on innovative projects (69 per cent). The reality is that talent in the IT function aspires to work for start-ups, recognised disruptors and challenger brands, so traditional organisations need to urgently formulate strategies to compete effectively with these digital insurgents.

In order to tackle this looming threat to business growth and innovation, skills shortages of this magnitude need to be tackled at the grassroots level - in the classroom. Nurturing home grown talent by encouraging children, of both genders, to be more engaged with technology at an earlier age will help to fundamentally grow the talent pool for IT in a sustainable way. Joint initiatives by the government and companies, aimed at sponsoring IT education, will have a lasting impact on the talent market for years to come. 

Ultimately, unless Hong Kong takes steps to address the gap now, then the IT stalemate will never change, leaving business open to cyber attacks or falling behind new digital challengers. By addressing the issue now, we can ensure that those climbing up the IT ladder have the skills to cope with an increasingly technology focused future. 

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