Where Have They Gone? Future Challenges to Tech Hiring in Education

Is the bubble back? We haven’t hit the glory days of the late 90’s, but it looks like retention of technology professionals is starting to impact education due in large part to budget deficits. In the past six months, two of our education clients lost their more senior level IT specialists to other organizations with higher paying jobs. One of which was a promising startup. So begins the great shift of 2012.

Throughout the recession, job analysts looking at the Bay Area job market have said that demand for IT people (not software developers) has remained strong. While other regions and professions were still contracting in early 2010, IT jobs were growing and pay was steady. As an IT employer I know how difficult it is to find and retain qualified people in the Bay Area. And so I spend a lot of time thinking about how to make sure our staff enjoys what they do and have lots of opportunity for growth.

In the next 18 months this industry can expect to see further movement by internal IT staff out of non-profits and education and into the for-profit sector. Will this mean that more schools will consider outsourcing certain positions or duties? Five years ago many non-profit organizations were hiring internal IT staff. Now, most are considering outsourcing one or more roles if they haven’t done so already. Schools may follow this trend, and they won’t be alone. Most tech startups I meet do not want to hire any IT people. Even when they plan to grow to 50 and 100 employees or more, they often say that their preference is to outsource this role (along with other back office services). When they do hire, it is usually because they couldn’t get the service they were looking for from a provider.

Every day I’m out talking with schools and non-profits. It’s my job to make a case for outsourcing, but not every organization is a good fit for our services. And not every organization can outsource their IT. That’s the reality. An organization has to reflect a maturity model to outsource roles. It requires a different way of managing and setting expectations. For a long time education has not had to make that shift in the same way as for-profit companies or non-profits. But a tight job market, rapid growth in other sectors (mainly tech) and tight budgets are putting new constraints on schools. Some schools will be forced to look at alternative models like outsourcing, which may not be a good thing initially. They may not be ready for it even if the price is right. Why? Outsourcing can be painful for an organization if they aren’t quite ready for it. In schools, people are accustomed to the convenience of grabbing the tech person walking down the hall if they have a problem. That person then jumps into a classroom to solve a quick tech problem. The issue gets fixed and class instruction moves on, uninterrupted.

This approach doesn’t scale and hasn’t for a long time. I know as I was in that role for three years in a local public school district. The idea that one person can serve all of these needs is unrealistic. As schools adopt Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policies, the demand for support will grow and when it does, the traditional approach won’t work because IT talent will be difficult to find. They’re going to have to focus on the most difficult issues like daily attendance and other critical business functions.

Yes, I do believe that outsourcing is a viable alternative for some roles in schools. Our organization has paid close attention to the changing dynamics and needs of our education clients, and become really good at delivering service consistently. We’ve developed the tools necessary to manage the back office operation while reporting on metrics that we believe are critical to running an effective operation.

I don’t mean to sound self-aggrandizing or state that this is the only way to go, but it may be a workable alternative. Why? Because we want schools to focus on teaching and learning, and not on keeping large server rooms running. There will always be infrastructure to manage but the skills should be incredibly diverse and the expectation will be 24×7. Whether an organization has 100% of their apps in the cloud, or just a foot in the door, the expectation of staff (especially younger staff) is that tech should just work. It should be easier, and they should be able to rely on support when they need it.  When that shift occurs in an organization, even in a school, the transformation can be illuminating.