The Tech Skills Gap: Skate to Where the Puck is Going to Be

GrowthI skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been. – Wayne Gretzky

Gretzky’s approach is invaluable business advice – especially when it comes to closing the technology skills gap.

Our recently released global study, IBM Business Tech Trends, revealed that big data and analytics, cloud, mobile, and social are more essential than ever to how business gets done. Nearly three-fourths of IT and business decision makers say these technologies are strategically important to their organizations.

Adoption has advanced rapidly to the point where each of these technologies is now deployed by at least 70 percent of enterprises. In just two years, social adoption has more than doubled, and cloud adoption has almost doubled. Organizations are not taking their foot off the gas either: Three-quarters plan to increase their investments in big data and analytics, cloud, and mobile over the next two years, while two-thirds plan to spend more on social business.

Click to enlarge infographic
Click to enlarge infographic

This juggernaut is creating high demand for skills in these areas. Two years ago, the skills situation was dire: In each of the four areas, only about 1 in 10 enterprises reported having all of the skills they needed. About 6 in 10 enterprises reported having moderate-to-major skill gaps in each area.

So, have we made any progress in the past two years? The 2014 skills picture is a bit less bleak, but it’s nowhere near rosy yet:

  • The skills gap has narrowed since 2012, but about 4 in 10 enterprises are still reporting moderate-to-major skill gaps in each area.
  • 1 in 4 enterprises still cite lack of skills as a major barrier to adoption for big data and analytics, cloud, mobile, and social.

But where’s the skills puck going?

That is perhaps the biggest challenge. “Having all of the skills needed” is a moving target! There’s no definitive, comprehensive list of skills that an enterprise can fully arm itself with today to guarantee having all the skills they’ll need for the foreseeable future. What passes as adequate (or even exemplary) for skills today will likely no longer be adequate tomorrow as these technology areas continue to evolve at lightning speed.

Warp speed isn’t just a problem for enterprises – it’s a huge issue for academic institutions too. A Forbes article by Dennis Yang explores the disconnect between educators’ and employers’ perspectives on college graduates’ preparedness, citing a McKinsey study showing that 72 percent of academic institutions believe graduates are ready for work, versus only 42 percent of employers. Yang writes:

… traditional educational institutions weren’t designed for a fast-changing market where skills depreciate quickly. Universities weren’t designed to change curricula and introduce new classes at the pace required by changing industry requirements. Exacerbating this problem is the fact that we now live in a world in which half of today’s jobs didn’t exist 25 years ago.

Take big data and analytics. Even a couple years ago, there were no university degree programs in “data science.” Today, “data scientist” is being heralded as the “sexiest job of the 21st century” and there are some well regarded data science programs. But the supply still can’t meet the demand, and some companies have even complained that searching for data scientists is like “chasing unicorns.”

What can enterprises and academic institutions do to figure out where the ever-moving skills puck is going?

They can take a couple lessons from the Pacesetters– a segment of leading enterprises we studied closely. In Big Data and Analytics, Cloud, and Mobile, Pacesetters are doing better at closing the skills gap: Only about a quarter of leading enterprises report a moderate-to-major skills gap in these areas, compared to 4 in 10 enterprises overall (in Social, Pacesetters are on par with other enterprises).

What’s special about how these leading enterprises tackle skill development? First, Pacesetters are proactive: 57% of the leading enterprises proactively develop new skills, frequently experimenting even before there’s a clear business need (vs. 33% of enterprises overall). They’re always anticipating, and adapting to where the puck is going.

Secondly, Pacesetter enterprises partner more extensively and creatively, working with others to round out skills and expertise they may not have in-house:

  • Nearly half of the leading enterprises significantly rely on partners for technology skills development (vs. 26% of enterprises overall).
  • For skills transfer and training at their organizations, leading enterprises are 2x more likely to partner with academics, and 1.7x more likely to partner with startups than lagging enterprises are.

Strong industry-academic partnerships can directly benefit academic programs as well. Professor Jennifer Priestley (Director of the Center for Statistics and Analytical Services at Kennesaw State University) notes that “Some very strong university (and non-university) programs have partnered with organizations native to big data and to data science and are bringing practical, real skills into the classroom.” Partnering with industry will help ensure that academics and employers have their eye on the same puck!

How is your organization chasing after the skills puck and closing the distance?

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