Careers: IT Still Seriously Understaffed

Almost half of all IT organizations are understaffed; if or when IT spending comes back, shops may have to scramble to fill these vacancies.

If and when IT budgets rebound, there's likely to be plenty of pent-up demand. IT organizations shelve pending projects, stretch out asset replacement schedules, and delay other expenditures; in a surprising number of cases, experts say, and they put off filling IT job vacancies.

The result: almost half of all IT organizations say they're understaffed. If or when IT spending comes back, shops may have to scramble to fill these vacancies.

The good news, according to market forecasters such as Forrester Research, Gartner Inc., and IDC, is that IT spending should claw its way back this year. All three market watchers project a clear and certain (if underwhelming) uptick in IT spending, with Gartner calling for a 5 percent jump. (Gartner's forecast is an outlier because its projection, unlike IDC's and Forrester's, includes telco expenditures). Gartner expects that sales of bread-and-butter IT technologies (such as servers, personal computers, and software) will increase by less than 2 percent this year.

What's striking, according to survey data from IT staffing specialist Robert Half Technology, is the degree to which many IT shops are overextended: for at least 12 months -- and in some cases, for 18 months or more -- they've focused on doing more with less.

The upshot, Robert Half reports, is that a distinct plurality of IT organizations is now understaffed -- some of them severely so.

It's a scenario that's doubtless familiar to veterans of the dot.com implosion: shops slashed early and slashed hard -- and in many cases, slashed too much. "Many companies have cut technology staff levels too deeply, making it challenging for IT departments to keep pace with demands," said Dave Willmer, executive director of Robert Half Technology, in a prepared release. "Although businesses may be able to operate with stretched teams in the short term, being perpetually understaffed isn't sustainable and can detract from the overall productivity and morale of the organization."

This isn't speculation on Robert Half's part, either, according to Willmer. He cites the results of his company's latest CIO survey, which -- among other questions -- asked IT chiefs if they were comfortable with their staffing levels, particularly with respect to existing workloads.

The answer, according to Willmer, is "mostly yes." Nearly half -- 43 percent -- of IT chiefs reported that they were at least "somewhat understaffed." Of this tally, a full 10 percent conceded that they were "very understaffed." On the other hand, just 3 percent of CIOs felt that they were "somewhat overstaffed." The largest group of IT executives -- at 53 percent -- said that they were "at the appropriate staff level."

Robert Half stops far short of predicting an explosion of hiring activity. Its Q1 CIO survey, for example, indicates that -just seven percent of IT departments actually expect to hire new employees. "After months of slow hiring activity, managers are beginning the year with new budgets and appear ready to carefully expand their IT departments," said Willmer, in a statement that accompanied the release of Robert Half's Q4 CIO Survey.

A clear majority (58 percent) of companies that plan to hire additional IT employees will look to add full-time staff, according to Robert Half; just over a quarter (28 percent) expect to tap part-time or contract workers. Most shops will look to plug vacancies in their lower ranks -- a majority say they're focusing on either entry-level (i.e., one to two years of experience) or staff-level (two to five years), but one in five IT shops will look to add senior staff members with five or more years of experience.

In addition to filling long-standing staffing vacancies, shops are gearing up to greenlight a number of new or previously shelved IT projects: almost half (42 percent) expect that their companies will invest in IT projects in the first quarter of this year. "Many firms are investing in technologies that improve efficiency and competitiveness, and there has been demand for additional professionals to implement these projects," Willmer indicated.

About the Author

Stephen Swoyer is a Nashville, TN-based freelance journalist who writes about technology.