Demand for specific skills hurts job hunters

Employers' preference for information technology workers with "the right skills at the right time" is preventing entry and advancement in the job market, according to a report to Congress published by the Commerce Department Friday.

Many IT workers participating in the study said one of the biggest barriers to employment is employers' demand for workers whose capabilities exactly match a highly specific technical skill set.

According to the 225-page report, "Education and Training for the Information Technology Workforce," employers favor candidates with postsecondary education, particularly four-year technical degrees, but experience may be the most important factor in a hiring decision. The experience requirement can extend to recent college graduates and current workers who have acquired new skills through training but lack experience applying those skills. This requirement for on-the-job experience applying specific technical skills can be a significant barrier to employment and advancement, the study said.

Because of employer demand for experience, work-study and internship programs are necessary, the report said, but some employers believe these programs take too much time and won't pay off with participants applying for future full-time work. Other employers disagreed, saying the programs developed study loyalty and encouraged students to return full-time after college.

Because product life cycles are so short, specific technical skills often lose their value in as little as two to three years, forcing IT workers to constantly update their skills. Often, this is done on the workers' own time, outside of work or employer-sponsored education.

"As time has become an increasingly important competitive factor for many employers of IT workers, the time available to retrain current employees or train new employees in the skills needed for new projects or new openings has diminished. In this environment, many companies have concluded that they cannot afford the time, risk and uncertainty associated with 'making' the employees they need," the report said.

Instead, employers are buying the skills they need.

"While buying skills on the open market can require paying a premium for them, companies are often able to access the most current skills and get a fully trained workers while reducing or even eliminating the cost of training," the report said.

The report is based on eight roundtable discussions conducted by the Commerce Department's Technology Administration around the country and a Web-based qualitative survey. Study participants included employers, IT workers and education providers. Nearly 150 people participated in the roundtable discussions, and nearly 300 people participated in the Web-based survey.

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