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The best post-pandemic opportunities for IT workers

The market for IT workers was hot before the pandemic. Now, demand is even greater, especially for certain skills.

As companies forge ahead with efforts to revitalize the post-pandemic workplace, IT professionals are looking at an unprecedented opportunity for career advancement and flexible work arrangements. Yet, there is a caveat to this potential IT job nirvana: Employees need to up their game with the right mix of business and technology skills and develop an aptitude for effective remote collaboration.

Even as COVID-19 upended whole industries, disrupted supply chains, and was a knock-out punch for certain jobs, the technology sector fared considerably well throughout it all, sporting the lowest unemployment rate of any industry other than healthcare, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The IT talent shortage, a problem even before the pandemic hit, was exacerbated as companies implemented remote work and e-commerce operations nearly overnight while accelerating digital transformation initiatives to remain competitive and keep revenue flowing throughout the pandemic.

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These dynamics have created an opportune time for IT professionals to reset their employment prospects or blaze a new career path. Of LinkedIn's 15 Jobs on the Rise for 2021, six of the list's categories have digital ties, including specialized engineers, user experience professionals, data science specialists, and AI practitioners, along with tech-tangential roles in areas like business development and digital marketing. Salaries for these posts are typically upwards of $80,000. Through parent company Microsoft, LinkedIn has launched a slate of low-cost certifications and job training content to help workers develop these much-needed digital competencies, covering in-demand skills like Python for data science, project management, data analysis, and product management.

The war for talent rages on

"There is virtually full employment for tech professionals now, and the hiring is accelerating," says Megan Slabinski, district president at Robert Half, a staffing and HR consulting firm. "That's leading to a massive war for talent being driven by digital transformation initiatives, especially in the e-commerce space as traditional brick-and-mortar companies look to online capabilities."

In a Robert Half survey of more than 2,800 technology leaders, 54 percent of companies confirmed plans to add new positions in 2021. Almost all (95 percent) said it's a challenge to find skilled IT professionals today, and 91 percent were concerned about losing top IT talent to other job opportunities this year. The survey found that the top technical chops primed for immediate hire included cybersecurity, cloud, data/database management, network administration, and web development and design.

Connecting the dots

At Hewlett Packard Enterprise, software engineering, data and analytics, artificial intelligence, and machine learning expertise definitely top the list of coveted IT competencies. But given the breadth of the company's agenda and new modes of working, important characteristics that go beyond any one technical skill are also being sought. The majority of employees are working from home but with the ability to go into the office when they need to for collaboration. This new way of working underscores the importance of team members being comfortable and adept at remote collaboration and communication, says Rashmi Kumar, senior vice president and CIO at HPE.

"At a bare minimum, people have to be able to make progress in a virtual environment and not get flustered by tools and change," she says. "They need to have the skills to go from the office to a hybrid meeting to a completely virtual meeting and transition seamlessly with the technologies provided."

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As organizations dive deeper into digital commerce, many companies are also on the hunt for new kinds of skills calibrated for expanding digital product portfolios and creating customer experiences that eliminate friction and facilitate seamless engagement across platforms and customer touchpoints. At HPE, the ability to think digitally first, break away from traditional silos, emphasize the customer mindset, and make connections across disparate data points is of utmost importance as the company maps out the right mix of talent to field its global IT organization, Kumar says.

"We want people who are dot connectors, who can see the big picture and don't have tunnel vision," she explains. "People who are OK with taking risks, who fail and can learn quickly, who will ask questions, try different things, are open to innovation, and who consider options and tradeoffs to solve a particular problem."

Along with analytical skills and a customer-centric view, IT organizations are also placing a higher value on soft skills and business acumen—not just for high-level executives but for midlevel managers and in-the-trenches IT professionals, according to Andrew Hewitt, a senior analyst at Forrester Research who is focused on employee technology experience, digital workplaces, and remote work. The ability to understand user experience design, spearhead user surveys and journey mapping sessions, and wrangle change management issues are proficiencies now central to many tech-oriented roles, especially as IT matures from a focus on back-office functions into a key enabler of business and digital transformation.

In particular, CIOs are hungry for IT candidates with strong people skills and fluency in the language of business, Hewitt says. "There is a need for those who can build relationships across the business and who can understand business needs and how technology fits into that business need," he explains. "Today, we have a lot of siloed tech folks who don't know how to speak the business language or build relationships or translate tech jargon into something that actually means something to business users."

Retooling for success

Candidates that check the latest skills boxes—and even those who don't—should take advantage of this time and position themselves for a career lift. According to Robert Half's research, many already are: More than a third (35 percent) of tech professionals surveyed said they plan to look for a job in a few months, some because their current employer isn't offering growth opportunities (33 percent) and others in search of a salary boost (30 percent).

Robert Half's Slabinski says a number of relatively small steps can have significant impact, allowing IT talent to seize the moment and maximize opportunity. Among them:

  • Expand your digital presence by building out networks, including LinkedIn profiles and potentially a personal website that showcases skills and accomplishments. People find people online.

  • Pursue professional certifications or specific skills; even though employers tend to place a higher value on real-world experience, this extra training shows initiative and makes you more marketable.

  • Search outside your geographic location. "More managers recognize the reality of virtual and remote environments and are open to looking for people outside their market," Slabinski contends. "If your next ideal career path or job is outside of where you live today, expand your search to open up new opportunities."

  • Get involved with the organization's strategic initiatives either by volunteering, by positioning yourself for key projects, or by sitting on an innovation committee or taking part in a hackathon. "Find opportunities and ask your manager what you can do to bolster your skills," Slabinski says.

Employers looking to keep their pipeline flush with strong IT candidates also need to make some changes. The Robert Half research identified the most pressing staffing challenges as hiring skilled full-time or interim professionals (24 percent), improving productivity among workers (21 percent), and adapting to fully remote hiring practices (16 percent). Beyond that, building and maintaining employee morale, securing hiring budgets, and retaining top performers were key obstacles.

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Being open to filling positions with remote candidates is one of the most effective ways companies can attract top talent in a stretched market. Slabinski also advises IT leaders to work with HR departments to examine internal hiring processes to ensure there aren't barriers to entry. "Companies might want to accelerate the hiring process by having fewer rounds of interviews and getting fewer people involved so they put themselves in a competitive situation to move quickly on talent," she explains.

To address this, HPE has recently elevated its hiring game. The company has launched early-career initiatives to fuel its entry-level pipeline while partnering with the University of Houston on a variety of career programs, including funding for the HPE Data Science Institute. The company is also expanding its reach by advertising for talent on social media platforms like Facebook and LinkedIn, along with forums in India, Kumar says. HPE has made a concerted effort to boost diversity hiring, which not only includes seeking out people with varied cultural backgrounds and ethnicities but also those who offer a diversity of experience as well as representation from different industries.

"It's the best time to be in tech," Kumar says. "Those who have the emotional intelligence to understand the bigger, end-to-end picture of the problems they are trying to solve, as well as the people and players involved, will be ready to take leadership roles. Then it's up to them to grow their career and teach others how to succeed."

This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.