Mind the IT Skills Gap and the STEM Cliff!

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Bob Supnik is vice president of engineering and supply chain for Unisys Corporation. He is also directly responsible for software and hardware development.

Bob-Supnik-tnBOB SUPNIK
Unisys

In discussions with customers’ IT executives – especially those whose data centers rely on mainframes – one often hears demographics and aging IT staff as recurring themes. In many organizations, key technical staff members are retiring or nearing retirement, and it’s difficult to find replacement staffers with the right skills.

This skills gap is part of a trend in the larger STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) workforce in the United States.  According to one study, half of the STEM workers in this country will retire in the next 10 years.

However, the demographic “time bomb” is about more than the loss of programmers who know COBOL or of test engineers who know transaction processing. There’s also been a major shift in how companies organize their IT staffs, and this has implications for supporting mainframe environments and related business applications.

Programmer-analysts designed many organizations’ business-critical applications. These analysts are not only on the verge of retirement, but are also very difficult to replace. That’s not just because they have skills in legacy technologies, but also because IT departments separated the roles of business analyst and programmer a long time ago and can’t find people who do both.

For IT, Age Isn’t Just a Number

Historically, customers who came to IT firms with a problem to solve expected that the programming team would master the relevant business case, processes and technical issues and specify a comprehensive solution, from specification to design and, ultimately, code.

This “community” approach extended all the way through the IT organization. The task of mastering the customer’s world was everyone’s responsibility, so that the resulting system would be a coherent and consistent solution to the initial problem.

Of course, the industry has progressed and has taken a more streamlined approach to applications programming. The world has become infinitely more complex, and factors such as global competition, new technologies and regulations make it unrealistic to expect every programmer to understand every nuance of a business process.

The new approach resembles an assembly line, where everyone has a specific role. Analysts create specifications for new applications and develop use cases. Architects and designers decompose the use cases into an overall structure and individual functions. Programmers write and unit-test the functions. Integration testers put the pieces together and test sub-assemblies and the whole application against the use cases that the analysts provide.

The Culture Factor

This change in programmer-analyst roles has an even more radical analogue in changing generational cultural attitudes, which spill over into IT.

For example, veteran Unisys engineers continually work to enhance the security in the operating environment of our ClearPath systems because, as one recently said, doing so “is in our DNA.” From long experience, he understood that one careless programmer can undermine the security integrity of an entire system.

That response raises the sometimes profound differences in cultural attitudes between generations – which can often manifest themselves as work style differences.

For example, Millennials, today’s youngest workers, can demonstrate profoundly different attitudes from their older Boomer co-workers on matters such as IT security.

The Millennials grew up in a consumer-focused world full of social networking sites and search engines, where security implementation is a secondary concern. At a recent event with a largely Millennial audience, one of our engineers asked how many in the room worried about the security and privacy implications of FaceBook and Google Apps. Only one Millennial raised her hand; all but one of the Unisys engineers raised theirs.

Dealing with Demographic Destiny

So, what must organizations do to sustain the quality of their mission-critical IT environments in the face of generational flux?

One simple solution: seek help. Outsourcing system operations, application management and even application development to an expert provider can cut the need to sink resources into development and implementation of a new management approach. However, the provider would need personnel as well versed in the technology and system use cases as the departing internal workers.

A second option: get educated. Educate younger workers in your business processes and mission-critical systems. Rebuilding your skills base, from application design and coding to performance tuning and system operations can have significant long-term benefits. It often takes more time and effort than outsourcing, but it’s a worthwhile investment. It could also be an opportunity to increase the diversity of your organization by opening new paths for women IT workers to replace male-dominated cadre on the verge of retirement.

Regardless of approach, it’s imperative to recognize that demographics are destiny. The impending “STEM Cliff” in the United States is a major challenge, but it also presents a real opportunity to build new skill sets and ultimately help your increasingly younger IT team work smarter.

Industry Perspectives is a content channel at Data Center Knowledge highlighting thought leadership in the data center arena. See our guidelines and submission process for information on participating. View previously published Industry Perspectives in our Knowledge Library.

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One Comment

  1. Jason Sprenger

    Skills gaps are emerging in today’s economy, and a solution that’s proven to make a difference in helping the STEM and broader economy thrive is investing in career and technical education (CTE). CTE programs, whether at the secondary, post-secondary or other educational level, boost student achievement and deliver increased career and earning potential. CTE also produces workers for the open jobs of today, and boosts business productivity and economic status as a result. The Industry Workforce Needs Council is a new organization of businesses working together to spotlight skills gaps and advocate/kick off CTE programs that work to curb the problem. For more information, or to join the effort, visit the IWNC website. Jason Sprenger, for the IWNC