4 in 5 U.S. firms fall short on IT skills

CompTIA's "State of the IT Skills Gap" reveals that insufficient information technology training impacts companies far beyond the office network or the server rack. In this survey of over 500 IT managers across the United States, even companies considered technical leaders were lacking in some key skills. Out of the companies that admitted to an IT skills gap, a fair share reported specific results such as these:

  • Impact on staff productivity: 41 percent
  • Effect on customer service and engagement: 32 percent
  • Cause of security problems: 31 percent

Survey respondents cited several core areas where they intend to focus their computer training and professional development budgets, including emerging technologies like business process automation, collaboration and virtualization. Here are five of the top IT challenges for U.S. companies.

1. Network infrastructure

WANs, LANs and Wi-Fi topped the list of technology causing the most struggles within organizations, according to CompTIA. Business consultant Chris Matyszczyk shared his lack of surprise with CNET readers, writing in a blog post that "the only time many bosses acknowledge [IT's] presence is when their own personal laptop suddenly can't print."

CompTIA's survey respondents echoed the IT sector's conventional wisdom, that high-profile web applications and "big data" projects often get more attention and bigger budgets than networking tasks. Small businesses buck that trend, asking for help with connecting printers, copiers and A/V devices to small office networks.

2. Data storage

Cloud computing was supposed to streamline business, letting professionals access files and even their entire desktops from anywhere. However, Quantum's Robert Clark notes that companies struggle to provision enough storage to handle demand for both everyday use and routine data backups.

Quantum's survey of IT managers determined that many of them are challenged by finding both the talent and the equipment necessary to keep up with user demand. As companies generate data at an astonishing rate, CIOs wrestle with the decision to develop in-house storage experts or to hire companies like Quantum, which offers data protection and management.

3. Business continuity and disaster recovery

IT industry analyst Paul Watson thinks that CIOs leave business continuity off their priorities list because they may not be working in the same company for more than a year. Watson's cloud computing consultancy found that a lack of business management training among IT professionals leaves them vulnerable to the whims of the job market.

Watson told readers of U.K. trade publication Business Computing World that the right people to coordinate business continuity protocols rarely end up on the teams making those plans. In this case, tech experts need business savvy and communication skills so they can be a part of corporate survival strategy planning.

4. Security

E*Trade Information Security manager Danielito Vizcayno suggests that many IT professionals think security gets in the way of productivity. "Typically," Vizcayno writes on his personal blog, "the only time security is a focus is when something bad happens." IT departments have to balance usability and security, and their main goal is to make stuff work. Another challenge for security specialists is the new Bring Your Own Device or BYOD model.

Like the managers in CompTIA's study, Vizcayno advocates a new approach to professional development that weaves IT security throughout an organization, eliminating the "us vs. them" mentality that can leave sensitive systems vulnerable to attack.

5. Mobility

As consumers have embraced smartphones and tablet computers over the past five years, demand for mobility specialists has risen. Some government employers struggle to staff their mobility-related job openings. Missouri's CIO, Craig Orgeron, told Federal Computer Week Magazine that his state agencies routinely lose top talent to private companies and startups. Orgeron and other government officials have been forced to outsource some of their mobility development projects.

Mobile technology creates new challenges even for experienced programmers, who must refresh their skills to write code for iPhones, iPads and devices running platforms like Android. In a Robert Half Technology survey from March 2012, 65% of CIOs reported difficulty in finding skilled IT professionals, specifically in networking, security, technical support and applications development -- especially for mobile devices.

But who pays for the training?

The CompTIA survey notes that more than half of companies responding plan on training their staff in the necessary skills, but about a quarter of them plan on finding new employees with the necessary training. However, recruiters, CIOs and industry leaders agree that IT professionals need to take charge of their own professional development. CompTIA -- a non-profit trade association -- is one of the organizations and vendors offering certifications for the computer industry.

One option is to combine formal degree programs with supplementary courses and certifications in those in-demand technologies. Blending business and leadership courses with IT training could also help technologists gain traction in their companies and in their careers.