Coronavirus crisis

How the pandemic is affecting tech jobs, skills and certifications

It may be too early to know exactly how COVID-19 will impact tech jobs and skills in the long run, but there are clear signs of things to come.

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Coronavirus crisis

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The year began with a bang for IT professionals with 25,300 tech jobs added to U.S. payrolls in the first two months, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). But by March this number dropped to only 6,000 new IT jobs and then the bottom dropped out in April with the BLS reporting a stunning net loss of 181,300 tech jobs in America.  

Clearly, for those of us who analyze the tech workforce and forecast tech labor markets the elephant in the room is the COVID-19 pandemic and how the economy will react to it in the coming months. It’s too early to say with accuracy what lies ahead but one thing is already certain: Before the pandemic employers were already struggling mightily with devising and building successful tech staffing models to meet their future and present needs and now these objectives have become even more elusive.

In fact, it’s almost idyllic to think that prior to the pandemic the most common challenge shared by employers was balancing three things: the urgencies of digital transformation, combating ever deepening security threats, and at the same time keeping increasingly complex systems and networks running smoothly and efficiently.

The staffing challenge has now moved well beyond this. More than ever, hiring managers need to think about their tech staffing needs strategically over the next few years, define specific tech skills that will be required and at what bench strength and not rely on consultants and contingent workers to solve their skills gap problems. They need to configure a roadmap for how to get there so that they’re not scrambling for talent last minute when the time comes.

The word from the trenches

We conducted interviews in early 2020 with 350+ senior tech execs and decision-makers across 40 industries to inquire about their tech workforce plans. Our findings?  Many not only realized the threat of constant inadequacy of their tech staffing bench strength but were conspicuously stressed out about it prior to the pandemic. They sensed harder tech labor challenges in 2020 than any year in recent history and this was before the pandemic took hold. They were open about "people problems" getting exponentially worse unless their companies begin laying the groundwork right now for a new strategy for staffing that has, or soon will, be thrust upon each and every one of them.

What has concerned them most prior to the arrival of COVID-19 were game-changing emerging technologies that have been altering the landscape of not just businesses but the private lives of billions of people. Layered into all of these is also a requirement to build deeper cybersecurity capabilities for the escalating threat levels that these disruptors have created:

  • Next-gen internet of everything
  • AI-driven development
  • Blockchain
  • Mobility
  • Big Data//Information Integration/ BI analytics
  • Cybersecurity
  • Distributed loud computing
  • Hyperautomation/Robotic Process Automation
  • Autonomous things
  • Multiexperience Platforms
  • Edge computing
  • Healthcare tech/IoMT/Telemedicine
  • Carbon-reducing technology/exponential energy

Some execs believe that the coronavirus pandemic will undoubtedly create an acceleration in labor trends such as automation at their companies as they are forced to find ways to operate with fewer employees physically present. We agree it is likely that companies will be going digital and automating much faster. But at the same time there will need to be a significant up-skilling and retraining, especially for laid-off workers. Moreover, we would not be surprised to see a reduction in middle management in the months and years ahead similar to the global recession in 2008.

We also heard many opinions about the newly amped up stay-at-home workforce remaining in place after the pandemic winds down. With tech professionals balancing the demands of work life and home life all in the same place, employers have relaxed rules about the number of hours their workforces are working which makes sense: it’s just a lot harder for employers to deny flexibility around work hours and work settings. The execs and decision-makers we interviewed are increasingly calibrating expectations for when they need everyone in the office or online for staff meetings and other team activities.  

Altogether this amounts to a massive transformation of the technology and tech-business hybrid workforce as the focus becomes how to deliver on a wide variety of new operational solutions and revenue-generating opportunities. And all of these prospects depend on solving a puzzle: how to get the mix of critical technology and business skills and experience just right when shortages of skills and talent have never been more constraining to business transformation, and to do it during pandemic uncertainties.

We believe the pandemic will not have a negative impact on technology evolution, a fact that has been proven time and again with past market interruptions. Evolving technology always seems to barrel down the train tracks at breakneck speed no matter what, often outdistancing the ability of humans to adopt it or turn it into elements of competitive advantage, market share, or profitability.

[ Related: Coronavirus: Managing (and pivoting) during a crisis ]

But what it will change is how various employers and industries choose to invest in technology now as their normal revenue channels are disrupted. For example, industries most directly affected by the pandemic — travel, hospitality, restaurants — are all buyers of technology and their relationship with their technology vendors and service providers will change, unlike those of Amazon, Alphabet/Google, Facebook, Netflix and even Apple who hold vast amounts of cash reserves and unwavering customer bases.

So too will this pandemic tip the scales in favor of large employers with sufficient resources to finance ferocious predatory behaviors in local tech talent markets stunned by recent developments. Recent data and empirical research collected from companies in our 3,578 research partner network in the U.S. and Canada has revealed many stories of "surgical" labor losses by aggressive recruiters targeting specific individuals and also clusters of highly valued talent in specialized skill areas and product domains. Many employers caught in the haze of pandemic confusion never saw these critical talent losses coming and had only withering defenses to combat their talent defections.   

One long-time labor trend has shifted recently that will help them in the short-term: the constant frenzy surrounding short-term skills gaps and unfilled jobs targeted at point solutions has quieted down. There are many indicators for this including the fact that growth in pay for the 1,090 skills and certifications in our quantitative research has been flat for the past six months, but negative for the past 12 months. In other words, the gap between supply and demand for tech skills has held constant across all certified and non-certified skills surveyed in recent months following more than two years of overall negative growth. 

The upshot is 2020 will continue the trend of employers taking stock in how poorly prepared they are from a talent perspective for consuming these revolutionary technologies and on top of that, when (or whether) they will continue to invest in them based on an anticipated global recession. We’ll know more as the weeks pass.

By the numbers

Extra pay awarded by employers to talented tech professionals for 585 non-certified tech --- also known as cash pay premiums --- increased slightly in the first calendar quarter of 2020. Currently averaging the equivalent of 9.6 percent of base salary on average for a single non-certified skill, the highest in 20 years. Conversely, average market values for 505 tech certifications decreased from January to March, down nearly 2% percent overall, currently earning the equivalent of 7.0 percent of base salary on average for a single certification. That’s the lowest average pay premium for IT certifications in 7 years and the widest gap between certified and noncertified tech skills pay in 20 years.

This according to the latest quarterly update of Foote Partners’ IT Skills and Certifications Pay Index (ITSCPI) based on compensation data through April 1, 2020 provided by 3,578 private and public-sector employers in 83 U.S. and Canadian cities who partner with the firm to report pay for their 324,480 technology professionals. Since its launch in 1999, the ITSCPI has continuously tracked cash pay premiums paid to tech professionals by their employers for an ever-increasing number of popular tech and IT-business skills and certifications. Rigorously validated data and market analyses are updated and published every 90 days. 

[ Related: Post-coronavirus planning calls for more (not less) investment in tech ]

The graphs below show now cash pay premiums for certified and non-certified the skills have performed over the past three and 12 months, through April 1, 2020. Each is group is broken down be category to show what’s up and what’s down by specific tech areas commonly associated with tech skills and certifications.

Noncertificed tech skills. 149 of 585 non-certified tech skills changed in cash market value in the first quarter of 2020, with average cash pay premiums increasing by 1.1% overall. Pay performance in the first quarter of 2020 was higher for seven of eight non-certified tech skills categories reported. For the twelve-month period ending April 1, pay was higher for only three: Management/Methodology/Process, Data/Database; Applications Development skills.

noncertifield skills Source: Foote Partners IT Skills & Certifications Pay IndexTM, 1st Quarter 2020 data

Noncertified tech skills percent growth/decline for the last three months and 12 months.

Tech certifications. The average cash pay premium for a tech certification is currently at its five-year low. In the quarter ending April 1, 2020, 505 tech certifications lost even more value, down an average of 1.9 percen in the quarter. Pay performance from January to March 2020 was lower for all but one certification segment, Applications Development & Programming Languages. For the 12-month period ending April 1, 2020 pay was lower in all certification categories.

techskills Source: Foote Partners IT Skills & Certifications Pay IndexTM, 1st Quarter 2020 data

Tech certifications: Percent growth/decline for the last three months a 12 months (data collected through April 1, 2020).