For several months now, I’ve read about a “skills gap” in the technology field. The upshot of this complaint is that companies are having a hard time hiring people with the correct mixture of technical skills to fill their job openings. I find this problem to be interesting because it indicates one of a few possible problems to me: first, the work force has somehow become less skilled in a particular area because new workers lack a skill previous workers had; second, the work force has become less skilled because new problems have arisen, which employees are unable to solve; third, employers are demanding more from potential hires than before, and applicants do not meet the demanding new standards outlined in recent job postings.
Prior to reports about the “skills gap”, I recall reading about employers demanding more and more from their employees. These reports came out as the stock market kept rising, while unemployment didn’t change much.
Once unemployment started dropping, the stories about employers demanding more from their employees became less frequent. Stories about unemployment falling took their place in the media. Now that unemployment is relatively under control, we’re seeing stories about the skills gap, as employers try to fill the remaining vacancies in their workforce.
My amateur explanation for the series of news stories we’ve read since the 2008 market crash, is this: over-taxed employees who survived the 2008 crash still-employed, were doing the jobs of two or three different people by the time the dust settled from the layoffs; as companies started hiring again, these folks brushed up their resumes and found other jobs where they didn’t have to be “everything to everyone”. Because they were currently employed, they found jobs easily. This caused their previous employers to begin searching for that employee who could fill the two or three job roles their previous employee apparently did with no trouble. Consequently, some employers are still searching for the “purple unicorn” to fill these “super-vacancies” left by employees who moved onto jobs requiring a more normal skill set. In other words, some employers are hunting for a mythical creature that can fill a mythical role they’ve imagined. Some job descriptions I’ve read recently ask for a highly-skilled technologist who can essentially be a web designer, web developer, network security analyst, systems administrator, and IT helpdesk technician: finding a person who can do two or three of these tasks efficiently in a company with more than ten employees would be a remarkable feat! Employers who are searching for folks to fill these kinds of positions will likely see a “skills gap” appear.
The most frequently cited area experiencing the pain of this supposed skills gap is IT Security. There are a large number of malicious attacks on information systems — this is true. The nature of those attacks is a constantly moving target: this is how attackers remain successful, as IT security specialists strengthen the weaknesses attackers once exploited — this is also true. However, this game of cat and mouse doesn’t necessarily illustrate a skills gap in the work force: I think this puts the blame of IT security flaws on the employees doing their best to defend companies from a group of people who are essentially IT criminals and terrorists.
The legal problems experienced the Prohibition era in America, during the 1920’s and 1930’s could have been attributed to a “skills gap” in “fermentation prevention technology”. However, a few years’ perspective on those decades indicates that there was simply a thriving business in boot legging: many folks were making lots of money providing alcohol to thirsty people, and law enforcers were stretched to their limits keeping up.
I think a similar situation is present in IT security currently: cyber crime is coming into its own, as networks mature and users do more of their commerce online. One’s Google account can possibly contain the bulk of one’s financial and personal details, and if you share passwords with other important accounts — e.g. retirement, banking, Google, and work email — it’s suddenly very desirable to steal that information.
This doesn’t even address the issue of cyber hijacking with malware like CryptoLocker. These criminals get paid by taking away access to your data by convincing you to download a program that locks up your computer until you pay them to remove it. The takeaway is there are many ways to make money by maliciously manipulating networked computer systems because people have moved so much of their social and commercial activity onto those systems. Even ten years ago, this wasn’t the case.
Consequently, I don’t think we’re in the midst of a skills gap in technology. I think we’re experiencing a period of growing pains, where employers are coming off a spurt where employees were scared about keeping their jobs, and consequently, they worked harder than usual, wearing more “hats” than usual. As the employment situation in America stabilizes, I think we’ll see the unemployment rate drop further as employers split their “purple unicorn” jobs into multiple “normal” roles filled by multiple normal employees. Furthermore, we’ll get a handle on the current issues in cyber security, and cyber criminals will continue to develop new deviations to steal from the honest majority. In short, life will continue as usual, and media hype will continue to be just what it always is: hype.