The Tech Skills Gap and How to Fill It

Professionals can improve their tech skills in a number of ways to remain relevant, regardless of industry.

By SmartBrief Education
Published Winter 2019

LinkedIn recently released its 2018 Emerging Jobs Report, and the role of "software engineer" leads with the most job openings—some 80,000 in the United States alone. American companies can't get enough of technical skills.

But that isn't the entire story. What's surprising is this: The largest skills gaps aren't hard—they're soft. According to the LinkedIn analysis, it is oral communication, leadership and time management that top the list of skills with the greatest demand and the least availability. To put it into perspective, while soft and interpersonal skills made up just 1% of the combination of skills required for system engineers to succeed on the job in 2015, they now make up 8%. As the report concluded, "some typically human skills that today cannot be replicated by machines have been growing almost as fast and are here to stay."

That intersection between the more technical capabilities and those people skills is what keeps hiring managers such as Nick Marinos on the recruiting hunt. According to Marinos, director of Cybersecurity & Data Protection Issues for the IT & Cybersecurity division of the U.S. Government Accountability Office, "We appreciate coming into interviews where the interviewee can take complex topics and boil them down into plain English for folks who may not have any background whatsoever on the topic. In order to do that, you have to know the technical elements really, really well and you have to know how to communicate back to an audience that may have no knowledge whatsoever. That's what sets those people apart from the rest."

Some savvy companies, in their efforts to keep up with the need for technical professionals, are investing in training programs for their staffs. For instance, AT&T launched a huge retraining initiative to equip its workforce with the technology skills needed to fill "jobs of the future." Other organizations are providing licensed access to online courses delivered by providers such as Coursera. Classes in "design thinking for innovation," "marketing in a digital world" and other similar topics train workers who need to help their business operations make the digital transformation. But even here, the emphasis of these courses is often on hard skills that only make up part of the optimal hire.

Some individuals aren't waiting for their organizations to get up to speed. They know that developing skills, in both technical and interpersonal areas, enables them to future-proof their careers and accelerate advancement in the directions they choose.

Options for Education

These days, there isn't just one way to get an education, says Virginia Tech's Pamplin College of Business Dean Robert Sumichrast. Popular program options for working professionals include MOOCs, coding bootcamps, technical certifications and master's degrees. The question is which one to choose.

MOOCs—massive, open, online courseslet students audit courses online, at no charge, through well-known universities. MIT, Harvard, Stanford and many other schools have developed multi-week curriculum that consists of video recordings, texts and assignments that students complete on their own. Students may also choose to participate in paid versions of the course, which add graded assignments, extra support and a certificate for successful completion. Some institutions have teamed up with MOOC learning companies to develop "nanodegrees" or "micromasters," sets of courses that people can tackle for college credit (as long as they pay tuition) and apply toward earning a full master's degree.

Up to a few years ago, coding bootcamps numbered in the hundreds. These days, the industry has consolidated, and now they number in the high dozens. Bootcamps vary widely in their duration (an average of 14 months), format (online and in-person) and cost (up to many thousands of dollars). But all have a similar goal: to help students—even those lacking technical proficiency—ramp up quickly on coding skills, especially web and mobile development, in preparation for finding a job. Many offer help in lining up introductions to potential employers. In fact, according to Course Report, which tracks the bootcamp market, four in five graduates say they've succeeded in finding work using the specific skills they've developed and have seen an average salary bump of 51%.

Technical certifications are credentials that show people have passed a test and, in some cases, worked in a given job for a set period of time. Frequently, they're issued by tech companies to certify that somebody is qualified to work on their equipment or software, or they're offered by organizations such as CompTIA to assess expertise in specific topics, such as networking or help desk skills. These can be inexpensive to attain, if the student is willing to do self-study. However, they're of limited duration; when the technology is updated, the certification needs to be updated, too.

Then there's the master's degree, which stands apart from the other options in many ways:

  • It's only available through institutions that have gone through an accrediting process to prove the quality of their programs, instructors and courses.
  • In the leading schools, faculty have practical experience in the subject and stay on top of research so that they can bring that cutting-edge information to their students.
  • Students come into these programs with a myriad of backgrounds, some with experience in the given discipline and others with skills from non-tech industries, which makes for a rich collection of viewpoints, strengths and stories.
  • The program generally includes a community of alumni with deep connections and support.

A program such as the online Master of Information Technology, offered by Virginia Tech, adds an additional benefit: It has been jointly developed by faculty from both business and engineering, which means it can precisely strike that sweet spot of "technical and soft skills" that employers truly value, notes Sumichrast. The combination, he says, "makes for a really well-rounded student coming out of the program."

The GAO's Marinos agrees. "This is why we end up going so often to Virginia Tech," he says. "Ultimately, we look at potential hires as those future leaders that could be sitting there at the witness table testifying before Congress. And it's not specific to the GAO either. If you look at our complementary entities on the private sector, the big consulting firms are looking for very similar skills as well. There's a high demand and need for experts to come in and solve technology problems, but then explain it to the folks who are going to still be there once they leave."

Career Services at Work for Students

Career Services at Virginia Tech’s Pamplin College of Business does more than publicize job openings. According to Associate Director Emily Pinette, people pursuing a master's degree—such as the online Master of Information Technology—frequently want career coaching, including development pathways, resume and cover letter writing, and mock interview practice.

Because the MIT program is online, she rarely meets with them face-to-face, she says. Their preference is "virtual coaching, in the sense that I can meet people where they are—whether that's over email, over chat, over video conferencing like Zoom and also over the phone."

Every semester Pinette puts on a webinar with a recruiter (who happens to be a VT alumnus) to discuss trends in the IT industry. The goal is to help "students stay up to date on what they're trying to go into, what the salaries might look like and what they might need to keep in mind as they think about their careers."

Pinette talks with many hiring managers and says it's easy to pitch them on the value of hiring Virginia Tech MIT graduates.

"Companies are looking for people that have a variety of skillsets," she says. "Coming from a program that utilizes our faculty from the business school and our faculty from the engineering school gives these students a really good look at how all these disciplines interact."

Choosing the Right Approach

So how do you choose a program? Sumichrast recommends looking at the context in which you're operating. "If you've already got a degree in the field that you're trying to update, then maybe a single course, such as a MOOC, could give you a narrow update on what you already know."

If you want to build up your network, coding bootcamps give you speedy interfacing with other students and your instructors, but only a master's experience will give you deep interaction with your peers, the faculty and business leaders serving as guest lecturers or participating as alums, he points out.

And only that master's degree can bolster previous academic experience to help you transition into a new field or expedite your career advancement beyond your current role, which no technical certification could ever achieve on its own.

"These are personal decisions," Sumichrast advises. "Find the education that best fits you. For many students that means one that puts the facts that you learn in context and that approaches problems from different directions so that you can have a more coherent whole when you finish."

The Master's Certificate Option

Graduate-level certificate programs have proven to be a popular option for students with degrees and work experience who want to boost their knowledge in focused ways through a shortlist of classes. For example, among its many certificate offerings, Virginia Tech has a graduate certificate in Health Information Technology, which includes four courses, two in healthcare and two in business intelligence and analytics. These credentials can help individuals show expertise in short order (often within a year) and are well-suited for people with a technical foundation.