Is IT a profession in Crisis? Why IT professionals feel left out.

The world of Information Technology has changed dramatically in the last 20 years. Decades ago, Information Technology (IT) was considered a creative and strategic profession. These individuals developed applications, integrated systems, architected data structures, and were responsible for many of the most strategic technologies in business.

Today, however, IT is far less sexy, and one could say the profession is in crisis.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the IT profession is expected to grow at about 15% over the next 10 years (faster than the overall job market of 11%) and some areas (information security) will grow at two to three times that rate. But when compared to other technical professions (computer science, data analytics, mobile design), the profession is growing at a much slower rate. The BLS data shows that the average five-year-tenured IT manager in the U.S. now makes around $120,000 per year, only 20% to 30% more than an entry-level computer science or petroleum engineer with a similar technical background.

Look at traditional IT service providers like IBM, Dell, HP, and even Microsoft. They have all struggled to retrain their workforce, shift to cloud offerings and reinvent their culture. The IT profession itself appears to be going through the same.

Of course there is good reason for this. IT jobs have changed dramatically over the years, and now most of the innovative development takes place among cloud vendors (who also need IT professionals) and less and less in the corporate IT department.

In my own travels, I get a chance to talk with hundreds of talented professionals in all disciplines, and it seemed to me that IT staff in general were a little less engaged and excited about the future than many others I’ve interviewed. So I asked TINYpulse, an engagement survey company, to look at some data.

In the spring of 2015, TINYpulse, an employee engagement survey company, compiled survey responses from more than 2,000 employees (IT professionals delineated by job title) located in mid-sized and large corporations around the U.S. Here is what they found.

IT Professionals Are ‘Less Happy’ Than Average Professional Workers

First, based on our survey results, there is a significant statistical difference between the happiness of IT professionals and other business professionals in general.

On the question “On a scale of 1 to 10, how happy are you at work?” only 19% of IT employees answered with a high rating — 9 or 10 — compared to 22% of all other employees, a statistically significant difference (around 14% less happy).

Workplace satisfaction is about much more than an employee’s mood. It can impact whether someone wants to stay in their job, how quickly they develop in their role, and how invested they are in their work. Gallup’s research also suggests that being engaged boosts workers’ creativity and innovation.

IT employees are generally highly skilled, customer-oriented people, and they want to grow their careers. Let’s look at this second dimension of engagement (review our Simply Irresistible model for more detail) — opportunities for growth.

IT Opportunities For Growth — Also Behind

In today’s skills-based economy, an individual’s ability to learn and grow is likely one of the most valued part of their job. So in our model we look at “opportunities to grow and learn” as one of the five hallmarks of deep employee engagement.

It turns out that here, also, IT professionals surveyed are behind their peers. As the chart below demonstrates, when respondents were asked about their visibility into career growth and promotion, they were more than 25% more pessimistic than the average. Only around 1/3 of the IT professionals surveyed had a clear promotion or career path, compared to 50% for the average of all respondents. (To me this 50% number is still far too low, but it tells you how easy it might be for you to give your team “above average” scores in this area!)

There can be many reasons for this issue, but typically the problem resides with company leadership (Bersin by Deloitte, High-Impact Leadership Development). Individual managers must advocate on behalf of the team, and it is a manager’s job to help each individual find their path to the next logical step in their career. At an organizational level, companies should have a culture of internal mobility and offer development and coaching everywhere. Development can  always be a high-return on investment strategy, and it does not cost a lot of money to give people the opportunity to learn new skills, take on developmental assignments, and take new positions.

When we looked at what opportunities for development were available, again IT seemed to fall short. As the data below shows, there is a significant gap between the amount of professional development and the culture of development offered to IT professionals vs. others. The fact that only 26% of respondents felt their organization supported their personal career goals is very telling — IT as a profession may not be the perceived area of high growth it once was.

My perspective on this data is that you, as an organization, have an opportunity here. IT professionals are highly trained technical people, they are often skilled at customer service and problem solving, and they can make great consultants. While their internal career opportunities may be more limited than others in the organization, this is a talent pool that should be explored for high-potentials who can move into other positions.

If you are an IT professional yourself, don’t let this data hold you back. Your company may not see the potential you have in your current role: explore opportunities to move into consulting, customer service and support, sales, or even HR to improve your ability to add value.

Strong IT Management But Somewhat Weak Business Alignment

Two of the questions in this survey get to the issue of how well IT Professionals are managed. These address the issue of goal setting and alignment with the organization. As you can see from the data below, IT professionals do feel that their goals are clear and easy to understand, but they feel somewhat behind in the translation of their goals into overall company strategies.

Again this makes a lot of sense, given the shifting nature of IT in general. Today’s IT professional is more focused on technical support, integration, data management, and information security than ever before. These are business-critical challenges but may or may not directly contribute to the company’s product, sales, or market strategy.

My recommendation to IT managers is to take the time to translate IT projects directly to measures like business growth, revenue improvement, market share, or company brand. While IT issues often seem like “keeping the lights on” (as does much of HR), in reality the things IT does are highly strategic (and can be very damaging when done poorly), so I encourage IT leaders to take the time to explain and detail how every project and program has a direct impact on the company’s overall strategy.

By the way, in our analysis of Glassdoor data (Bersin by Deloitte-Glassdoor proprietary research, conducted in fall and winter of 2014-2015), we looked at the single most important driver of an employee’s willingness to recommend their company to their peers as a place to work. The top driver of this measure is “trust and confidence in leadership,” which directly translates into a leader’s ability to translate what the company is trying to do into the work of every single employee. IT in particular, since it is a support function, is an important area to focus on when building such alignment.

IT: A Critical Profession That Demands Attention

Our research today shows that the number one issue keeping HR and business leaders up at night is the engagement and retention of highly skilled people. IT professionals, who steward the company’s systems, data, and security, are among some of the most important staff to worry about.

This data can be a bit of a wake-up call for CFOs, CIOs, and those who manage IT professionals in the company. Your team probably feels behind: they likely need more attention on their professional growth, more flexibility in their work and job environment, and more information about how their work directly contributes to the bottom line.

For those of you in the IT profession, keep your chin up. This data can help you and your organization understand how important it is to pay attention to your career and professional needs. You are responsible for some of the most important areas of business, and while leaders may come to expect your work without even thinking about it sometimes, this data should be a wake-up call that you, like everyone else, need career and professional investment as well.

One thing I’ve learned as an analyst and HR consultant over the years: when people feel inspired, supported, and heard in an organization, they can and will do amazing things. IT, just like any other profession, deserves this level of respect. Hopefully this data will help organizations refocus their investments and make sure their IT teams are well taken care of.

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  • D L Thomas

    IT and HR should definitely be strategic players in the Board room. Most of the IT people I know, however, are tactically oriented rather than strategic, and HR people mostly administrative. The step-up is a matter of prospective since both positions work with core organizational knowledge, yet most often these employees cannot see beyond the details and tactics. They need to expand their perspective to a higher level to harness the knowledge of their positions and define to others why the knowledge they know is important to organizational goals and objectives. IT alignment insights are enormously valuable to organizations. Often times IT is holding winning hands, but playing the wrong cards.