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There is a lot of talk about the shortage of technology professionals and the stress organizations are trying to find. New McKinsey article justifies hiring people from “more non-traditional backgrounds”.

The report admits this is “difficult to put into practice”, noting that “hiring managers are reticent to select people with learning to fill critical roles”.

Still, the study finds that “people are capable of distinctly mastering new skills, and that unconventional tech hires aren’t so unconventional after all. But the willingness to hire them and the commitment to help them expand their opportunities requires a shift in thinking.”

It’s a tactic companies should take, McKinsey said. Demand is growing exponentially for skills including software engineering, data management, platform design, analytics-driven automation, user experience design and cybersecurity. Eighty-seven percent of CEOs surveyed globally said their companies were not prepared to address the digital skills shortage, and that was before the COVID-19 pandemic triggered dramatic shifts toward remote work.

The pressure is particularly strong for employers outside the technology sector, the research firm notes.

Of course, there are some people who aren’t right for tech roles, and those are people who tend to be happy in their comfort zones, said Anu Madgavkar, a partner at the McKinsey Global Institute and one of the report’s authors.

But she added that “even seasoned technology professionals with computer science degrees must commit to continuous learning to keep up with the pace of change in the field.”

People learn technical skills to reinvent themselves

The report’s authors say they analyzed millions of online job postings to quantify the “skill distance” associated with specific job moves, referring to the share of new or non-overlapping skills associated with the new job when someone make a change.

According to the report, tech startups typically bridge a 27% skills gap each time they change roles.

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“More intriguing to hiring managers is the subset of technology professionals who started in other types of occupations,” the authors said. “These are not the experts who got degrees in computer science and never deviated from their chosen path.

“These are people who started out in completely different lines of work and then reinvented themselves by adding new abilities along the way, perhaps learning to code, understanding web architecture, or developing apps.”

The authors called this “a common phenomenon in technology” and said that 44% of people who held technology roles at the end of the period they observed had moved from non-IT occupations.

“To do this, they have had to master a greater proportion of distinctly new skills, and their reward for this is upward mobility.”

Also, for technical roles in particular, “it’s also worth asking whether we really need to insist on college,” Madgavkar said. The study found that many of the workers who switched to technology from other occupations did so without college degrees.

Technology roles significantly increase people’s income

People who move into a technology role increase their earnings over the course of a lifetime. In fact, almost two-thirds of their lifetime earnings can be attributed to what the authors called “capital from experience or skills learned on the job.”

According to the report, those workers passed an average skill level of 53 percent, sharply higher than when people who started in the field made the move.

“This shows that workers who want to step out of their comfort zones are often capable of developing and applying more new technical skills than many hiring managers assume,” the report said. “Over the period we observed, these newcomers increased their wages by an average of 5.3 percent annually, higher than the 2.3 to 2.6 percent growth for those who started in tech.”

Technical roles that non-traditional workers enter

Some common technical roles that offer newcomers a starting point include application software developers, IT support specialists, web developers, administrators and document management specialists, the report said.

“From these launch pads, the sky is often the limit in technology, where things move so fast that the field is wide open for anyone who can make it, regardless of pedigree,” the report said.

Additionally, nearly three out of five workers who graduate as IT managers in the United States started in non-IT positions. They typically begin their careers as operations and marketing managers or management analysts.

Three key strategies for cultivating technical talent

Companies that are not digitally native routinely find themselves outbid for tech talent or surrounded by highly experienced candidates, the report said. This shows that they need to take a different approach to recruiting and retaining talent – ​​one that moves away from focusing on narrow specialization and takes a broader view of people’s potential.

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Don’t overlook the people in your own organization who could make a difference

Compared to those already in technology positions, workers with non-technology backgrounds are almost 30% more likely to leave their current employers to become systems software developers. Take stock of the opportunities already available internally before looking for external candidates. Creating internal mobility that allows employees to add new skills and change course can keep them energized and prevent burnout.

The report cited a June 2021 Gallup survey of 15,000 U.S. workers that found 61 percent said the opportunity to learn new skills was an extremely or very important factor in deciding whether to stay at their current job.

Have the confidence to make bolder hiring decisions

While McKinsey’s data shows that tech talent can come from a wide range of backgrounds, some employers remain conservative when it comes to hiring. People entering technical roles for the first time typically expand their skill set by more than 50%, so employers need a “new lens” to select candidates based on their potential as well as their background.

Candidates should be assessed not only on their current responsibilities, but also on their transferable skills, inherent abilities and potential to succeed in new roles. Technical skills can usually be taught, so organizations need to look for the type of mindset and relevant soft skills required for the role.

Train for retention

Given that tech workers move around, employers need to evaluate the totality of what they offer employees, and one of the most important components is the opportunity to learn.

“Deepening and expanding the digital skills of the entire workforce pays off in productivity, innovation and retention,” the report said.

Training can take the form of structured in-person courses or digital content modules that employees can access on their own. But according to McKinsey, nothing compares to learning by doing and training or mentoring.

“The rapidly changing nature of technology means that even high-level experts are constantly learning and improvising on the job,” the authors write. “Opening up the field to all employees—especially people who want to reinvent themselves—is a smart tactic to activate talent and stay on top.”

Hire people with ‘unconventional backgrounds’ to fill the tech skills gap

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