Hiring Outlook in Higher Education IT

Campus information technology departments are looking for candidates with skill sets in mobile, big data and more — but will the best talent be lost to the corporate sector?

Hiring Outlook in Higher Education IT

With cloud computing, mobile technology and big data analytics on the rise, a lot of change is coming to campus IT departments. And along with all that change comes the need for many colleges and universities to ramp up their IT hiring in 2015.

That is both good news and bad news. It's great for job seekers, of course, when organizations increase head count. But for higher education institutions — not known for their top IT salaries — competition with the corporate sector should be tough. Smaller schools will have the hardest time of it, potentially losing desired candidates to larger schools in their area. How well a school can compete will depend a lot on school mission; employees' access to cutting-edge technology; and creative benefit offerings.

Casting a Wider Net

Deborah Scott is already feeling the recruiting pain. As chief information officer at the small but leading-edge Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Worcester, Massachusetts, Scott is searching much farther afield for desired top talent.

Worcester Polytechnic is located in the third largest city in Massachusetts, approximately one hour west of Boston. There are a number of other colleges and universities in the area competing for the same talent pool, which is to be expected. But coming as a surprise this year has been growing competition from employers in neighboring Connecticut and Rhode Island.

"I'm finding that IT professionals are in really high demand across all industries, and it seems to be from Boston all the way through Central Massachusetts," Scott noted. "I have even heard that there is negative unemployment for IT professionals, meaning that there are more open IT positions than there are IT professionals to fill them. We are finding that we are having a hard time recruiting because of that."

Another challenge is the caliber of IT pro needed. Scott is adding new positions that reflect the school's focus on advanced research, and her desired candidates combine engineering, scientific and information technology experience.

"We have new graduate programs in data analytics, a new cybersecurity program and an active and growing robotics program," Scott said. "Those types of research areas are really driving the demand for us to have some of the multi-discliplinary, scientific-oriented IT people that come with a breadth of skills in programming and systems integration."

That combination alone makes candidates hard to come by, especially competing with Eastern Massachusetts, one of the top tech centers in the country. But one thing in Scott's favor is the work itself.

"It is always more interesting to be at an institution where you are working to solve some leading and real-world problems. The people that come here are more interested in that than they would be in a cookie-cutter corporate environment," Scott said.

There is good news for traditional IT job candidates as well, whether they work in tech support, networking or systems administration. Scott is also always doing some level of replacement hiring.

"Since we are a relatively small private school, centralized IT is everything to everyone," Scott explained. Out of a staff of 70, she said, "About half of my division deals with the IT infrastructure and back-end computing. The other half deals with directly supporting the delivery of the academic mission — whether that is supporting the faculty, the students doing research or in the teaching in the classroom or online learning space."

Another staffing advantage for Worcester Polytechnic is its own information technology academic program, providing a steady source of raw talent right on campus.

"One of our saving graces is that we have a lot of really great students here that can work for us to fill the gap," Scott noted. Still, that is a temporary fix: "Computer science students are the most in demand of any major here, so we do lose them back out to industry," she acknowledged.

The Best of Times, the Worst of Times

The growing competition for IT professionals is confirmed by Jack Cullen, president of the IT staffing firm Modis, which just recently published its 2015 Salary Guide.

"Based on conversations that we've had with CIOs, technical hiring managers and IT directors, we feel that 2015 will be a strong year for IT hiring," Cullen predicted.

That is bad news for CIOs in higher education, who must face even greater competition for talent. It also means higher salaries are on the horizon as that competition heats up — and the corporate sector can react more quickly.

While Cullen expects IT salaries to increase by just under 5 percent on average, some high-demand IT jobs will go up considerably more. "Take database analysts. We're seeing a lot of need for strong analysts, data warehouse managers, the people involved in big data. There is a particular need for folks who have complex analytical skills and high-level enterprise architect skills — we're looking at a 10, 11, 12 percent jump in wages for them," he said.

"Other areas where I think we're going to continue to see top wages paid are with network security and mobility. Again, they're so much in demand and they're so hard to find that companies are really going to have to pay for them," Cullen added. Big data, security and networking are all areas that campus recruiters will be targeting heavily.

Salary Challenges

None of this is good news for Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida, which is already challenged with IT recruiting. The small private institution has approximately 2,500 students overall, including its graduate and online program.

"IT-wise, we are just shy of 25," said CIO Christian Boniforti. That includes IT support services, systems administration, network management and telecommunications. "Not included in that 25, but as part of my CIO responsibilities, are the library as well as our campus card office and institutional research. Once you add those non-traditional IT functions we're close to 40."

South Florida overall is "not necessarily hopping with technology-driven industries, but we do have a pretty large and pretty technology-savvy area around Miami," Boniforti noted. And Miami has been getting hot, hot, hot in the last couple of years.

The lure of Miami businesses can be a tough recruiting challenge for a small school like Lynn University. And just like in Massachusetts 1,000 miles away, the biggest obstacle is payroll.

"One of the challenges that we have in the higher education sector is competing as far as salaries go. We oftentimes lose out on opportunities just because we traditionally pay less," said Boniforti. And it's not just against corporate employers: "We have a state school nearby, and there are a fair number of schools within driving distance of our school."

Unlike Worcester Polytechnic, Lynn University does not have its own computer science degree program, another recruiting disadvantage. But like the Massachusetts school, Lynn recruits students to flesh out the IT ranks.

"We've been able to convince some of those students who have been with us a long time to stay on and become full-time employees. That has worked out really well for us," Boniforti said. "We actually have had students progress from the help desk to even become network administrators. We don't have a computer science degree program, so it's not a natural feeder for us. But we do find some talented, very capable and interested students who we are able to mold and make it work for them."

Looking Ahead

As to overall hiring needs, soon Boniforti and staff will begin the annual budget review process and annual staff reviews.

"Early indications are that we will be looking for another full-time employee or two in the support services area and another one in the CRM world," Boniforti said. "We're looking to begin implementing a customer relationship management system across the campus, to be more effective in the way that we communicate with our current students, faculty and staff."

Most importantly, Lynn University needs more mobile technology professionals. "On our campus we have a 1-to-1 iPad initiative that we launched last year, and we're giving out an iPad to every student on campus," Boniforti said. "There's a whole movement to mobility that has really caught fire on campus here. We've transitioned one of our Web developers from a traditional .NET developer to an iOS and HTML5 developer."

Still, Boniforti explained, "We're needing more resources. Mobility ranges the entire spectrum of IT, from having to support the individual device, to how does it impact software development, to how does it impact systems, and how does it feed out to the actual students and faculty."

Like with Worcester Polytechnic's Scott, recruiting is already challenging enough for Boniforti. Next year only promises to bring more headaches.

"I don't know if it's because of our lower pay, but it's challenging," Boniforti explained. "Our inability to go higher in the salary ranges works against us bringing forward a better caliber candidate. They may look good on paper: They have qualifications, they have skill sets, but there are times they are lacking on the analytical side or even on the soft skills side, which I think is important as well."

Top Skills for 2015

So what are the skill sets that an IT pro should have to land one of the new campus IT jobs?

"It's fine to be technical, and obviously we are hiring technical people. But I definitely look for individuals who have the ability to carry on a conversation with the end user," said Boniforti. "That is really important to us: the ability to converse, the ability to speak outside of technology. And being a good listener is really important."

Finding job candidates who can be checked off in all the desired categories — technical prowess, business understanding, soft skills and communication skills mastery — is asking a lot. And it may account for much of the recruiting struggle that campus recruiters face.

Boniforti's advice to the job candidate: "For us, flexibility — or the ability to adapt — is really important; to be able to show that, not only on a résumé, but in person. Also, be able to give examples of how you were challenged, how you tackled a new endeavor and really made it your own and really shined."

Further, the ability to demonstrate soft skills in an interview is critically important, Boniforti said. That includes the ability to sit and make eye contact, to listen and to speak adequately and very intentionally.

"Obviously keeping up with the technologies and things that are happening" are a given, Boniforti said. That includes having an understanding of how the cloud and mobility are shaping technology: "How [the candidate] may be able to be connected to those things would be something I would be looking out for."

Finally, Boniforti agreed with Scott that big data will be a major driving force in campus IT hiring in 2015.

"Another thing that is really becoming more important is the data piece: the people that are able to anaylze data; more of a science, math, technology sort of combination. I believe those kinds of people in 2015 are going to be in high demand and we're not going to have enough of them," Boniforti concluded.

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