Securing a Workforce
The information technology (IT) field in the U.S. is crying out for new talent, with hundreds of thousands of job openings and average salaries ranging from $86,000 to over $163,000. So why aren’t more people entering the field? A look at the local landscape sheds some light.
“Even prior to the pandemic, employers were having trouble filling their open positions, and that certainly has been exacerbated since,” Tricia Canavan said. “We saw from the early days, and continuing to the present, that available workers are not filling the numbers of the jobs that are available.”
For every two job openings, one person is applying to be part of this rapidly growing workforce, said Canavan, CEO of Tech Foundry in Springfield, an IT-focused workforce and economic-development organization that connects people to training support and career opportunities in the IT field, while also working with employers around the region, from nonprofits and higher education to medical organizations and corporations.
She explained that a lot of workforce-development organizations are not seeing quite as many people engaged in training as they’d hoped for.
Tech Foundry offers about 50 open slots with everything included: a laptop, one-on-one mentoring, internships, and more. Canavan thinks people don’t necessarily see themselves in the IT field, with the exception of those who have a love for video games and technology. But her organization’s mission is to connect people to living-wage jobs in IT; increasing diversity, equity, and inclusion in the IT sector for underrepresented and underserved people; while also helping companies thrive by being part of their talent solutions.
“Everybody in the world is completely and totally integrated with computers, and everybody’s work is supported by technology. So, regardless of the organization, you have a need for IT support staff or IT support functions specifically.”
“Everybody in the world is completely and totally integrated with computers, and everybody’s work is supported by technology,” she told BusinessWest. “So, regardless of the organization, you have a need for IT support staff or IT support functions specifically.”
Matthew Smith, director of Cybersecurity Graduate Studies at Bay Path University, agreed, noting that IT is one of those unique arenas that touches every industry: technology, financial services, healthcare, education, law enforcement, and more. And he stressed that cybersecurity is one of the most important sectors of IT at the moment.
“There’s not one industry that’s not touched by technology or cybersecurity,” Smith said. “And if you think you’re not, you’re fooling yourself because you’re just one intrusion of your company away from going down. Everybody is getting attacked.”
IT still grapples with a significant gender gap, with girls tending to lose interest, compared to boys, around middle school, though Bay Path, as a women-only college on the undergraduate level, is working to change that trend locally.
In Bay Path’s graduate studies, men and women are able to learn from both teachers and IT professionals about the technical world around them.
Smith explained that, in technology, especially in cybersecurity, the information changes rapidly, so before running each course, and even during the semester, he and his colleagues look at the content and tweak or change it to what’s currently relevant.
Just like Tech Foundry, Bay Path is preparing students for the workforce, providing internship opportunities for real-world experience. And any experience is important, as many corporations are requiring a bachelor’s or master’s degree to even get an interview, or requiring two to five years of experience for those who don’t have a degree. So a degree alongside actual workplace experience is a definite leg up.
For the past 25 to 30 years, there has been an ongoing debate over whether certifications or a degree is better for the IT industry. But certifications only cover certain niches. Smith explained that someone who secures a Microsoft certification and works for someone that uses Microsoft is in good shape. But if they apply for a job that uses strictly Apple sources, they may be out of luck.
“It’s kind of like you’re hanging all of your hats on one cert, but if you get your degree, it’s more broad, more spectrum … and then you can jump into that specific corporation, and they train you internally on what they’re using and what they can embed in,” he said.
Smith went on to tell BusinessWest that knowledge and experience outweigh everything. For example, in 30 years, an expert with only a high-school education is still an expert, but times have changed; people changing careers to secure opportunities in the IT workforce have to know more than people did 30 years ago.
And times certainly are changing in other ways. After the pandemic, more companies are relying on hybrid work models, allowing their employees to work more from home. But this creates a whole new set of issues.
Serve and Protect
The emergence of COVID-19 early in 2020 brought sudden demand for remote access. Fortunately, advancing technology made it easier to access a corporation’s network from any device at home or even on the go.
“Prior to that, I think people were a lot more resistant to remote workers. And it seems to be hanging on,” said Charlie Christianson, president of CMD Technology Group in East Longmeadow. “I think that, for a lot of our clients, the concept of a hybrid environment is where it’s going to settle out.”
Sean Hogan, president of Hogan Technology in Westfield, agreed. He told BusinessWest that he allowed remote work “before it was cool,” and that working for a smaller IT-support business in Western Mass. allows flexibility for his employees because of how often they are on the computer. As long as they have good security and bandwidth, they can work from anywhere.
“I’m a firm believer that, as a small business, we can grow in a down economy. In fact, over the years, every time we’ve seen a major downturn in the economy, we’ve come out of it very well.”
“On the flip side, though, with clientele, now we’re expected to support everybody’s house and laptops, so that’s a little bit more challenging because it’s a non-controlled environment, quite often, where folks are working,” he said.
Christianson added that he has to help clients understand the implications of letting someone use a home computer to access a corporate network as opposed to providing them a computer, or, in many cases, using a personal cell phone on a corporate network.
Over the past several years, CMD has spent a lot more time working with clients on the importance of cybersecurity. Recently, the company has observed a drive to adopt better practices, especially in the insurance sector. Many clients approach Christianson and his team with questionnaires provided by insurance agents to create better security measures in case of a data breach or hack.
Smith said a lot of companies have outdated security plans, some being 10 to 20 years old without any updates on the current technology available. Other businesses don’t have security plans in place at all.
Cybersecurity can be expensive, he noted, and a lot of companies feel like they can’t afford it. For small to medium-sized businesses, it’s tough to allocate money they need to direct to sales and marketing to drive their product, so cybersecurity often falls by the wayside — until a hack or attack happens. Then they recognize the importance of a proactive investment.
“If an incident were to occur, that can bankrupt your organization. You can be offline for 48 hours,” Smith said. “And by the time you pay that ransom — or you don’t, and you don’t have the specific backups to recover from — then you’re out of luck.”
Bay Path graduate students are trained to understand what to look for and how to rebuild that specific security incident plan to today’s standards, so they can incorporate that knowledge and bring it into a profession where they help protect individuals and businesses.
But companies, like CMD and Hogan, that help those businesses succeed are also focused on a threat of another kind: talent recruitment and retention.
“I think IT as a whole has a challenge for retention because you get a certain talent and a certain personality, and they’re always looking for bigger, better, smarter, faster,” Hogan said. “What happens is a lot of the folks that you bring in are looking to work in corporate America, and they want an enterprise-level job, and they want a big budget. They want to work at a big business. So you lose some folks to that.”
Even at a time when many IT professionals can work remotely, he noted, the key to retaining employees is hiring the right personality, and among the key traits is accountability to oneself. He also said new employees should pass the “beer test,” especially if they’re spending more time at work than with family at times.
“We’re looking for the person that wants to work in a flexible environment that has the right culture. In an interview, I really try to understand if they’re going to fit into our culture or not,” Hogan said. “Are they going to play well with the team? Are they a good fit? Do I want to go out on Thursday afternoon and have a beer with that guy or gal? That’s important to us because we work a lot.”
Among those hundreds of thousands of IT job openings in the U.S., employers are trying to fill about 675 vacancies in Springfield alone.
But despite that national challenge of hiring and retaining staff, both Christianson and Hogan reported a successful year.
In the past couple of years, Hogan told BusinessWest, one could hear a pin drop in his office in the last two weeks of December. This year, however, he’s been busy onboarding clients, closing deals, and seeing lead generations popping up left and right.
Christianson added that he had increased staff considerably this past year and plans to continue to do so in 2023.
“I’m a firm believer that, as a small business, we can grow in a down economy,” he explained. In fact, over the years, every time we’ve seen a major downturn in the economy, we’ve come out of it very well.
“I think, as small business owners, we just have to put our blinders on and not listen to the news and not get caught up in the hysteria around the economy and go out and do what we do every day. If you do that, you’ll be just fine,” Christianson added. “And the same applies to our industry. If you go out and work hard and treat your customers right and do the right things, you’ll grow.”