The Exciting Race for IT Specialists

Everyone is talking about the shortage of IT specialists, and the media are full of alarming news. Currently, there seems to be hardly any companies that are not complaining about problems. Companies are finding it increasingly difficult to go at the desired or required pace for digital transformation with the appropriate quality of implementation.

The fact that there is a shortage of IT specialists is undisputed. So are the problems that come with it.

Yet, many problems are often homemade. One aspect is often overlooked in these discussions: the problematic way that companies use to deal with their IT employees. Many companies really do everything they can to offend their employees – and often use downright perfect recipes to do so.

About recipes for homemade problems …

“Employees are our most important asset” is what you hear from many companies. Often, however, those are only empty words; the reality is different.

Insufficient appreciation of achievements combined with high work and project loads put pressure on the motivation and performance of employees and IT organizations. In many cases, the meaningfulness of their actions and their value contribution to the achievement of corporate goals are no longer clearly recognizable for employees. Employees feel exploited or burned out.

To solve the most pressing issues, often only short-term goals are pursued, but no sustainable solutions are implemented from an IT perspective. Issues are often solved only superficially as “bungled” implementations in the form of inflexible IT support for the most important process elements.

Less frequently used options are not dealt with – despite the foreseeable need for change. If changes are then actually required, things get difficult. Systems mutate into ticking time bombs: The worst-case scenario quickly looms when there are real stresses in the form of rapidly required changes, simultaneous scalability, flexibility, etc. Urgent matters are hardly distinguished from important ones. Hyperactivity reigns.

It stands to reason that the employees involved may well conclude that it is better to abandon ship and look elsewhere. Good IT employees in particular are traditionally mobile and go wherever “things are happening,” exciting topics and a good working atmosphere can be found, and where there are also decent conditions. As sought-after specialists, they are quickly gone from the company. And with them, a great deal of expertise about operational processes and complex interrelationships.

The remaining employees struggle with a loss of expertise and are often lost – if only for capacity reasons – in the sheer volume of issues to be dealt with. Due to a lack of in-depth knowledge of company specifics – like experienced, long-term employees acquire – they are only able to solve issues inadequately and with little foresight.

However, the lack of expertise also means that more and more expertise is stored in IT systems or is transferred to IT systems. The drawback to this: Systems are increasingly becoming a black box in the absence of long-standing, expert employees who also know about the subtleties of process deviations. And in order to move forward quickly, once again only rudimentary provisional solutions are used. There is a lack of expertise for clean refactoring, and usually there is no time at all.

A vicious cycle.

The pandemic and its consequences are fanning the fire, and several – mostly large – companies are sitting on a powder keg: The brain drain exacerbated by high turnover is complemented and driven by drilldown managers who are obsessed with optimizing metrics and focused on their quarterly numbers to drive the optimization of their own incentives, regardless of whether something is purposeful in the long run or not. However, they often forget or overlook their actual task – leading their employees.

Commercial requirements and implications are understood by every employee, but the way in which actions are often taken and also communicated at higher levels is often in stark contrast to what is promised and declared. Employees remember that.

… and their effects …

Everyone knows the obvious truth that finding good employees is hard, but keeping them is even harder. Good people who leave the company pull other people with them. Everyone knows that too.

It is undisputed that the labor market for IT specialists is tight. Of course, many factors are at work, and the causes are diverse. But one common realization surfaces again and again: The human being is THE central element – and the human is often forgotten.

Experienced IT employees leave, new employees are hard to find, and even pandemic-related career changers and IT newcomers are quickly absorbed by the job market. And since other companies also have recruiting problems, you can comfortably complain about not being able to find skilled workers.

In many cases, companies try to achieve the impossible: They want experience but not “old warhorses,” preferring instead “young, dynamic” employees. These employees are often clueless about the content but easier to control and influence. They should also cost as little as possible – after all, the key figures show the results.

Most companies are quite happy to hire. Fresh blood and expertise are good, and a certain amount of turnover is also quite healthy. Most of the time, people would rather part with poor performers, but in practice it usually works the other way around: It’s the good employees who leave first.

Despite the loss of expertise and the complaints, things always flounder along, but in many cases they are dancing on the edge of the abyss.

Lack of productivity results in lost sales, or lucrative business is lost as a result. How much productivity is lost in concrete terms is difficult to determine. The “upside” of this: How much better would things go if people looked more closely at their employees, used their experience and didn’t have to go through learning curves again – this question is usually not even asked or not pursued very far.

Mistakes in dealing with employees are readily ignored, but the backlash from doing so is intense. So, what do you do?

… to not so new solutions …

Despite the many prophecies of doom, however, it is possible to observe companies that have hardly any problems with employee and expertise turnover or that find recruiting much easier. These companies are characterized by several factors:

  • This is where managers work who actually exercise their management responsibility and are accepted as leaders. They practice good people management, provide direction, communicate clearly and are appreciative. In most cases, clear rules are applied there, and appropriate action is taken in a comprehensible manner
  • to pursue sustainable human resource development. Less-successful companies tend to leave internal potential untapped when recruiting – it often seems easier to bring someone in from the labor market than to give internal employees opportunities (including allowing for the possibility of failure) to develop. These companies manage to exploit internal potential in terms of skilled workers and junior executives. At the same time, they conduct careful recruiting and demonstrate great flair in selecting the “right” employees.
  • This allows their IT activities and projects appropriate time for clean solutions and necessary refactoring and provides sufficient leeway for powerful architecture and technology development. In most cases, portfolio management is actively pursued in order to set the right priorities.
  • They rely on a good mix of experience and fresh blood:  New employees bring in new knowledge, new perspectives and approaches. At the same time, experienced employees are valued, often contributing disproportionately to the achievement of the company’s goals and passing on their expertise and experience to the new employees.

It is especially this last factor that contributes significantly to the resilience of these companies. Everyone is talking about resilience. Many understand this to mean the logistical supply bottlenecks seen in the pandemic. The resilience of the organization itself, i.e. the ability of the company and its employees to respond quickly, flexibly and purposefully to changes, is of crucial importance.

And this only works with experienced, motivated employees!

… and actual changes

Apart from successfully doing their homework, companies will have to work much harder in the future to be attractive to the right employees.

What used to work doesn’t work now. Expectations, demands and priorities have changed dramatically – think, for example, of the differences in priorities and mentality between the baby boomer generation and the current Generation Z, for example, in terms of the well-known work/life balance, work hours, professional commitment, mobility, environmental awareness, etc.

It takes an entirely different approach to address these target groups. Depending on the specific job target group, social media are now often far more effective in recruiting than traditional campaigns in traditional channels; previously successful approaches – surprising to many – no longer work as well as they used to. So, it’s a matter of using channels specific to the target group and putting together new, attractive offers in order to be attractive to potential employees.

Creative companies that are innovative in recruiting will, therefore, enjoy significant advantages.

An actual change in mentality, away from the “employees are cattle” attitude that can still be found and towards a credibly practiced attitude of “employees are our most important asset,” is an absolute prerequisite for real change.

It is widely known that money or salary to pay for performance rendered is a hygiene factor in the long run. Individual incentives are nothing new but nevertheless interesting and are experiencing a revival: For some, material incentives count, for others immaterial ones; the right mix of quality and quantity is decisive. The company car as the universal answer has long since had its day.

Part-time and childcare options are important especially but not exclusively for women and families. Flexible work schedules and highly scalable remote work percentages are becoming increasingly important – four-day work weeks and confidence that performance will be delivered even with high remote work percentages go hand in hand.

Company flexibility regarding individual arrangements is required and includes virtualization, at the same time assuming the social responsibility of the company and individual development opportunities and simultaneously appreciating performance and experience!


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