By Paula Klein, TechWeb, published April 26, 2011

It’s far from a heat wave, but after several years of belt-tightening and IT hiring freezes, some thaw seems to be taking place. Data from research firms and anecdotal reports from recruiters and IT executives show that in North America demand is starting to reach the large supply of technical talent looking for jobs.

According to the latest IT Hiring Index and Skills Report issued by Robert Half Technology, for example, tech executives expect continued hiring activity in the second quarter of 2011. In the quarterly survey released in March, 9 percent of 1,400 CIOs said they planned to expand their IT departments; just 2 percent expect cutbacks, for a net 7 percent increase in hiring.

John Reed, executive director of Robert Half Technology, says: “Pent-up demand for IT pros” is causing the hiring spike. In particular, “projects that were shelved are now being implemented.” Nearly half of technology executives rated the probability of their firms’ investing in IT projects in the second quarter a four or higher on a five-point scale, with five being the most optimistic, he said.

While it’s not quite a war for talent, there is high demand for certain skills such as security and networking professionals who can reduce risks for new cloud and service offerings and unify disparate mobile technologies. Also strong is specific technology expertise such as SharePoint, .Net, Windows 7 and mobile apps. “We see strong [technical] hiring across board,” Reed says, “from low levels up to architects.” Technical, hands-on staff is in much higher demand than managers, he says.

Diminished IT Role?

Digging deeper, a study conducted by MIT shows that current hiring reflects the shifts taking place in corporate IT departments. A survey of 370 CIOs conducted by CIO magazine and the MIT Center for Information Systems Research (CISR) suggests that IT departments have added a new responsibility to the CIO’s traditional build-and-run requirements: technology exploitation and capitalization of digital platforms.

Jeanne Ross, director and principal research scientist at MIT Sloan School's CISR, says her team set out to consider how IT organizations are changing after many years of running and building operations — especially in light of cloud models and more use of service providers. Many are asking whether IT’s role will diminish, she notes. However, in Ross’ view, IT will remain essential in the areas of process optimization, collaboration, BI and data management, as well as fostering innovation. True, IT may have to share those responsibilities with other business units and shared services, but “IT brings an enterprisewide perspective that the business needs,” she says. It can be a bridge to the rest of the organization, although that may require fresh talent to lead the way. “Traditional IT responsibilities are being pushed out to partners,” she said. “We have said some of this in the past, but now it is really happening.”

Illustrating the point is San Francisco International Airport, where the search for a new CIO is under way. Zihong Gorman, director of information engineering services, reports to the CIO and wrote on a recent IT forum: “A change agent isn’t always the best operational leader, and vice versa. Because this field changes, or is challenged to change every 10 years or so, you get the cycle of changing, stabilizing, changing again. So every five years you have to change guard, unless you find a CIO who can do both.”

Finding a Focus

Gorman says that the airport’s IT department in the past decade has gone through cycles of building the entire infrastructure, outsourcing maintenance and services, and then consolidating the data center. “The focus keeps shifting and the team itself is not as critical” as in the past. When software and services can be purchased off the shelf and in the cloud, the primary responsibility of the CIO and the IT team is to track, recommend and manage partners. “IT has to find a new identity to help the business, even if that means letting go of some old ways, and that’s difficult to do,” she says.

These are among the challenges the next airport CIO faces, compounded by political pressures and budget restrictions such as those confronting most public-sector agencies and governments today — which also keep salaries lower than the private sector. “It’s demanding and there are high expectations,” Gorman says of the CIO position. And although San Francisco International is a critical, global operation, city and state government bureaucracies move slowly and the CIO post may not be filled for a few more months. Other hiring has been on hold as well, she says.

Robert Half’s Reed says that the public sector job market “is never as robust” as the private sector and it usually lags in technology and pay. In fact, he notes, it is small and midsize businesses that are hiring most rapidly, and they have many openings for creative staff. Despite the buzz around Google’s January announcement that it would hire 6,000 workers this year, “It’s a misconception that Google and other giant firms are grabbing up all the IT talent,” he says.

MIT’s Ross says that traditional CIO roles are changing everywhere and organizations “have to get their people broader experience.” At the same time, she sees two paths emerging in IT — one technical and one for management — and both are critical. Businesses need “genius technicians at the top of the organization to lead new initiatives.” But there’s also a strong need for someone to make sure all the services and technologies are used strategically for the business. They can’t just manage tools; they have to know what IT means in their market.”