Global CIO: General Motors CIO On 4 Essential IT Skills

He'd like to hire people with all 4 into the new GM. But how can IT pros get this broad experience?
IT pros have proven their adaptability and resilience, weathering their second brutal recession of the decade. They took an outsized share of professional job losses in the 2002-2003 downturn. While IT unemployment today's comparable to other professional fields (comparably bad), there's extreme volatility today in what skills are valued, finds Foote Research, which publishes quarterly surveys on IT skills and the premiums, if any, employers pay for them.

Few people watch IT job movements more closely than Foote. Says David Foote, CEO and head of research, in a report on 3Q hiring trends:

"What is happening is employers honing in on the skills they most critically need, not on people and jobs. First they identify the work, then the hard skills they need to get that work done. They look around for the people who have these skills, both inside and outside their company, and at what expertise level. Next they shift finite resources very quickly toward retaining and building—or renting---those skills and workers, and just as rapidly away from resources they no longer need. And that’s unusual, because workforce reshuffling in response to business decisions used to take months but now it’s happening in weeks and even days, hence the short-term volatility we’re seeing in skills pay and demand. The big layoffs are over for now and the action has shifted to rapid specialized skills acquisition and selective hiring."

Foote holds out the possibility companies will build those skills in-house. And some companies continue to offer career paths that let people stay on a tech track and build broad skills. But with companies' ruthless attention to skills that Foote describes, and their sense of urgency, IT pros are rightfully wary of being able to build a skills portfolio with one organization.

Is this skills-focused ruthlessness by companies a short-term blip, perhaps passing with the downturn? Not if employers take Foote's counsel:

"This is really the way employers should always operate. But in good times they tend to staff up, hang on too long to the wrong people, and find themselves regularly out of synch with skills requirements. The recession is forcing them to be more lean, nimble, reactive, and bottom-line in their human capital strategies. It would be wise to continue this post recession. Perhaps the positive aspect of corporate economic trauma---being compelled by circumstances into organizational changes that will have benefits long after their economic pain subsides."

To build that well-rounded skills mix GM's Kline describes, IT pros will need similarly brutal assessments of whether employers are giving them the chance to round out their skills. Easier said than done in this stagnant job market, when opportunities are tight and hiring managers want you to replicate exactly what you did at your last job, not move into a new area. Plus, more companies outsource entire skill sets, such as app dev or IT operations. IT pros will likely need a stint at an IT services company to get this range of skills.

IT pros can be forgiven for feeling like they're asked to do the impossible. Get deep technical knowledge, but don't get too specialized. Move around to round out your skills, but be sure to build depth in one industry, so you can marry tech to nuanced business needs.

The framework GM's CIO Kline sketches, of the well-rounded, hands-on tech expert, is of course only one of many IT career paths, and it's not an easy one. But professionals still standing in the IT business learned long ago that none of the paths are.

Global CIO small globe Chris Murphy is editor of InformationWeek.

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