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Commentary: Hands Up For Talent


A widening IT skills gap is preventing many companies from cashing in on digital’s bright promise, casting a dark cloud over the global economy. Here’s how business leaders can attract, develop and retain the talent needed to succeed in today’s digital era.

I often start my C-level keynote speeches by asking the audience whether their company has formulated a digital strategy. In most cases, I see a roomful of hands raised in the air. I then instruct the audience to keep their hands raised if their company’s technology strategy is aligned with their digital business strategy. Most hands remain raised. 

Borrowing a phrase from the software development community, my third directive is a showstopper; I ask the execs to keep their hands up only if their company has a talent strategy optimized to support their digital business and technology plans. Some shake their head. Many look down. Nearly all lower their hand to their side. This is not what I’d want to see. The essence of digital success, after all, can be likened to the proverbial three-legged stool, consisting of these components: a comprehensive transformation strategy; a supporting digital technology strategy that factors in both new and legacy technology; and a multifaceted, multigenerational digital talent strategy. Without all three in place, a business’s digital efforts will likely fail. 

The Skills Gap: Myth or Reality?

The lack of attention to a digital talent strategy is particularly troubling when you consider the nearly six million jobs that, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, are unfilled, or “open,” in the country.1 Many employers claim these jobs are open because they cannot find workers with the required skills. Not everyone agrees — job candidates say the open jobs would be filled quickly if employers were to offer competitive salaries. Welcome to the skills gap debate, an employment enigma, where open, unfilled jobs are often perceived by some economists as a harbinger of a growing economy. 

But another — and I believe more accurate — interpretation is that this very real and measurable skills gap is something execs should be not only aware of but also ready to act upon. Consider that Oklahoma State University’s Skills Gap Misery Index suggests the supply-demand talent gulf is 29.7% wider now than it was in the year 2000.2 When you add in today’s highly in-demand digital roles, such as cybersecurity behavior analysts, cloud aggregation specialists and chief robotics officers, it’s clear that the talent gap could cause a significant drag on the economy. According to the global job posting company, the talent imbalance costs the U.S. economy $160 billion each year.3 That’s equal to $993 million every business day. Tom Monahan, managing partner of Norton Street Capital, warned at a recent conference that on average, the skills gap lowers a company’s annual productivity by 10%.4

The Widening IT Skills Gap

When I spoke with the tech industry trade association CompTIA for a column I write for The Wall Street Journal, I learned that 548,000 technology jobs are “open” in America. But hold on. Here’s a startling adjunct fact from CompTIA: Those 548,000 positions are IT jobs “open” 90 days or longer. Do the math, and that projects out to 49,320,000 days of lost technology-driven productivity every quarter. Factoring in that data, it is understandable why C-level executives have increased their investments in artificial intelligence, robotic process automation and smart machines.

The Future Talent Pipeline Is Leaking 

Here’s the elephant in the room: Does the next generation of U.S. IT workers, particularly those 30 years of age or younger, have a strong foundational base of skills necessary to compete in the Fourth Industrial Revolution?5 Data addressing that question is ominous. Since 2000, global assessments of 15-year-old students in math, science, reading and collaboration suggest the skills of young Americans are markedly inferior when compared with peers in other nations.6

Results from the U.S. Department of Education’s “National Assessment of Educational Progress” further expose the U.S.’s talent pipeline crisis. The agency reports that the percentage of students determined to be “proficient” – think grade level “B” – in math and science examinations alarmingly erodes from fourth to eighth to 12th grade.7 These folks are the future of the U.S workforce. I am convinced it will take a generation, and probably longer, to measurably improve the pipeline of digital talent in the U.S. To buttress a lackluster national education system, employers must create “cultures of learning” within the walls of their company aimed at upskilling workers.

If these measures are not adopted in the near future, U.S. employers will be forced to rely on the interconnectedness of the Internet to source talent in other parts of the world. This a strategy that will not “Make America Great Again.” Nor will increasingly restrictive immigration policies favored by the Trump administration.

‘Soft Skills’ Are Hard to Find

I frequently ask C-level executives which talent/skills are most important to their company. Responses vary. Frequently cited are technical “STEM” skills in science, technology, engineering and math. Many more, however, place importance on talent attributes called “soft skills,” such as the ability to communicate, collaborate and make sense of large amounts of data. The Institute for the Future’s “Workforce 2020” report features the most comprehensive list of “soft” skills I’ve ever seen compiled in one place.8 I recommend downloading it. I also recommend Hit Refresh, the best-selling book by Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, who touts another important soft skill that is hard to master: human empathy.9

Digital Jobs Now In Demand 

Upscored, a New York City-based talent platform company, correlates skill demand with supply to determine which digital jobs are in high demand. According to the company’s data, the five most difficult digital jobs to onboard are: algorithm design, distributed systems, machine learning, mobile development and data science.10

Digital Jobs Over the Horizon 

Upwork, a Mountain View, Calif.-based freelance employment service, matches employer demand with freelance talent supply and releases a quarterly report that ranks the highest-demand freelancer jobs. This is a “canary-in-the-coalmine” compilation of positions employers will be competing for in the immediate future. The five most popular freelance jobs in Upwork’s most current report are: robotics, blockchain (enterprise applications), Bitcoin (cryptocurrency trading), penetration testing and react.js (a JavaScript library).11 Does your organization have a talent acquisition strategy for each of these positions?

Location Matters 

An often overlooked component of the digital talent gap is location. Employment data suggests the availability of IT talent differs widely by regions and states. The U.S. Department of Labor’s monthly job opening labor turnover report claims the talent gap is widest in the South (2,096,000 open jobs) and the Midwest (1,550,000 open jobs) and less acute in the West (1,368,000 open jobs) and East (983,000 open jobs).12 (See our recent report “Space Matters: Shaping the Workplace to Get the Right Work Done” for more on the emergence of geographic talent clusters.)

This gap also varies from state to state. Log on to the Massachusetts Technology Talent and Economic Reporting System. Produced by the Massachusetts High Technology Council, “MATTERS” is a real-time database that ranks talent for all 50 states in the following areas: STEM degrees per capita, relocation of college-educated adults, bachelor degree holders in the workforce, and tech employment as a percent of total employment.13

Purple Squirrels and Pink Unicorns

These are code words used to describe overly selective hiring practices aimed at hiring the “perfect” — usually external — job candidate. Is your company guilty of overreliance on this practice? Do this. Select several open tech jobs at your company. Cut and paste the listing into a Word document. Count the words. How many are over 500 words? How many include the phrase “five years of experience required”? How many narrow the search further by requiring a bachelor’s degree in a national talent pool where 70% of the workforce never graduated from college? A more manageable path to bridging the digital skills gap is to internally create the perfect job candidate through comprehensive skill development programs.

Keep Your Selling Shoes On

While most of this commentary focuses on how to attract and hire talent, another vital issue is retention. Millennials, now the largest component of the workforce, are notorious job hoppers. Business and technology executives must develop strategies that brand the company as a “best place to work,” promoting issues like work/life balance, diversity and an opportunity to do meaningful work. While online labor markets make it easier to find talent, they also make it harder to retain talent. Corporate branding is a “must-do” component of any solid digital talent strategy designed to attract and retain talent. 

Workers’ Mantra: Don’t Call Us; We‘ll Call You 

Today, employers drive the employment process. Moving forward, as many global economies remain at near full employment and millions of jobs remain open, the model will flip. Workers will control the employment market and the hiring process. 

By 2020, labor market experts predict over 50% of the workforce will be “contract” or “gig” workers, essentially labor mercenaries working for themselves.14 (For more, see my commentary in Cognizanti Volume 9, 2016, “Jumping on the Gig Economy.”) To survive, a company’s digital talent strategy must not just include “gig workers” but also leverage contract work as a cornerstone employment strategy. 

‘Talentism’ Is the New Capitalism

Talent acquisition in the age of digital transformation is a structural employment problem that will require bold thinking to resolve. Finding a solution is predicated on the acknowledgment that — as Dr. Klaus Schwab, executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, says — “talentism is the new capitalism.”15  

In this era of talentism, the employment supply-demand model has undergone a structural shift. From here forward, talent doesn’t need your company; your company needs talent. Those businesses that fail to craft a solution to this looming talent challenge, and nurture a culture of learning within their organization, will be on the wrong side of the digital talent equation.

Quick Take

Homework Assignment: How Aligned Are Your Digital Talent and Transformation Strategies?

The following matrix can help your organization determine whether its technology and talent strategies are aligned. Plot your dots! Let us know what you see. 

Figure 1


1. “Job Openings and Labor Turnover Summary,” U.S. Department of Labor, Jan. 9, 2018,

2. “Filling the Skills Gap,” Ohio State University Institute of Technology.

3. “Unfilled Jobs Cost Employers $160 Billion Annually,” Indeed, Nov 18, 2014,

4. “How to Close Your Software Development Skills Gap,” TechBeacon,

5. Klaus Schwab, “The Fourth Industrial Revolution: What It Means, How to Respond,” World Economic Forum, Jan. 14, 2016,

6. Drew Desilver, “U.S. Students’ Academic Achievement Still Lags that of their Peers in Many Other Countries,” Pew Research Center, Feb. 15, 2017,

7. “NAEP Overview,” National Assessment of Education Progress,

8. “FutureWork Skills 2020,” Institute for the Future, 2011,

9. Satya Nadella, Hit Refresh: The Quest to Rediscover Microsoft’s Soul and Imagine a Better Future for Everyone, HarperBusiness, 2017,

10. “Capitalize on the Most Sought-After Technical Skills,” Upscored, Nov. 30, 2015,

11. “The Hottest Freelance Skills on Upwork: Q3 2017,” Upwork, Nov. 2, 2017,

12. “Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey,” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics,

13. “MATTERS Talent Index,” Massachusetts Technology, Talent, and Economic Reporting System,

14. Brian Rashid, “The Rise of the Freelancer Economy,” Forbes, Jan. 26, 2016,

15. Anne-Marie Slaughter, “New Capitalism Nurtures People, Not Products,” Financial Times, Feb. 19, 2017,


Gary Beach is the Publisher Emeritus of CIO Magazine. He is also a guest columnist for The Wall Street Journal and author of the best-selling book The U.S. Technology Skills Gap. He can be reached at | Twitter @gbeachcio.

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