This article was published in CAUSE/EFFECT journal, Volume 21 Number 4 1998. The copyright is shared by EDUCAUSE and the author. See for additional copyright information.

The Information Technology Staff Crisis: Plan for It!
by Ann West

The challenge of recruiting, retaining, and retraining information technology staff in colleges and universities is one that affects the entire institution, not just the IT organization. This article outlines some of the issues surrounding the IT staff crisis and proposes a number of steps that campus IT leaders can take to minimize the effect of staff turnover on implementing critical technology directions.

It is 2003. You are the CIO of a state university and have discovered that your school's technology infrastructure is dysfunctional. You still have your e-mail system (most of the time), but the conversion to the new library information system never got off the ground. You are being questioned by faculty who need more support in their teaching to remain competitive with their colleagues at other schools. And you have admitted students who choose not to show up on campus because you don't offer enough access to up-to-date technology and the electronic services they want.

Your sister state university, however, is doing well, delivering multimedia groupware across campus, partnering with other institutions to deliver digital library resources, and providing faculty with powerful technologies to help them explain complicated concepts in the classroom. That university also has an extensive wireless/roaming network installed for students to use with their laptops.

As you consider what is wrong with your institution and how it came to be in such disarray, you look back over the past five years and notice one major difference in the two schools. You experienced an increasing problem with staff turnover because you did not remain competitive in the eyes of your technical employees, and consequently had delay after delay in implementing important projects because key personnel were leaving each year.

You are now back in 1998. You wonder how you can address the increasing problem with technical staff turnover. What can you do to minimize your institution's risk and move forward on critical projects?


Recent studies show that the U.S. is experiencing a shortage of technical staff--and it is becoming worse. Last year's Chronicle of Higher Education included a number of articles written about this impending shortage. The Department of Commerce's Office of Technology Policy released a study in October 1997 entitled America's New Deficit: The Shortage of Information Technology Workers.1 According to a recent report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 1.3 million new IT workers are needed just to fill the positions of computer scientist, computer engineer, system analyst, and computer programmer (see Figure 1).

Figure 1

This increase in IT jobs is driven mainly by the service sector, which by 2006 is projected to require a 177 percent increase in computer systems analysts, scientists, and engineers. 2

The Information Technology Association of America also released a study last year, Help Wanted: The IT Workforce Gap at the Dawn of a New Century, which cited a number of disturbing trends. According to the report, in 1996 there were 190,000 unfilled IT positions in mid-size and large U.S. companies. The report's authors viewed this as a conservative estimate, because the survey did not include small and non-profit organizations. This translates to one IT position in ten being vacant in IT companies and an average of four to five total vacancies in each of the non-IT companies.3 As you may surmise, these companies are recruiting constantly, raising salaries often, adding signing bonuses, and offering other benefit packages which we in higher education would find difficult to match.

In addition, our traditional computer science curricula are focused on teaching the theory and grammar of computer science, not necessarily specific or applied skills. Even though higher education is graduating roughly 25,000 computer scientists per year,4 many of the specific technical skills and much of the experience in high demand, such as developing an intranet or administering a network, are more likely acquired through work experience. The Department of Commerce study warns, however, that this "hands on" method of education may not be able to scale up to deliver the increased number of skilled information technology workers needed in the next century. Companies may have neither the time nor the inclination to invest in training "green" employees. However, even if colleges and universities could respond to the growing need for specific skills, would the fast pace of technology obviate them by the time we graduated the first students in our new curricula? What will those students do in ten years when their knowledge is out of date?


Employers are looking not only for degrees but also for staff with demonstrated work experience and skills. Some managers look primarily for work experience and regard the degree as secondary. This means your most valuable can-do staff are at the most risk of being wooed away with salary, "perks," and promises of high-tech glory. To put it plainly, if your technical stars attend conferences, belong to a technical society, or even talk to vendors, they probably have received at least a few overtures.

What can you do to help your institution address its part of the nationwide shortage? How can you ensure that you have the staff to support your institution's timely adoption of appropriate technology? There are four areas on which you can work to effect change and lessen the impact of staff turnover on your campus: o educate the institution;

Educate the institution

The recruiting of technical personnel has become very aggressive. For example, one high-tech company last year sent out plastic business cards printed with a URL and the phrase, "You're a professional, go for it." Once at that site, you are prompted to click on a position title that links to a recruiter in a chat room. You are interviewed, on the spot, over the Internet. It is also not unusual for a company to pay a several-thousand-dollar bonus to employees who have referred qualified outside candidates to the company's human resources (HR) department.

The first step toward dealing with IT staffing issues is to recognize that you have, or will have, a problem keeping technical staff. In addition to the COBOL programmers working on the year 2000 problem, people being recruited aggressively have skills in Web development, database management, network engineering, security, and Internet systems integration--the same people you need to move your IT infrastructure forward.

Second, you must somehow convince your college or university to recognize this as an institutional problem and a threat to research and academic programs, not just to operations or administrative systems. Everyone who uses a computer or relies on someone who uses a computer will be affected by technical staff turnover. Whether your campus computing structure is distributed, centralized, or a hybrid, shortage of staff affects both academic and administrative effectiveness.

Some initial steps in this educational process include:

Educate your high-level administrators about the situation. You can begin by familiarizing them with the articles featured in the Chronicle of Higher Education last year. 5

Raise the awareness of middle managers. Talk about the issues to heads of departments, deans, directors, and managers who employ technical personnel.

Find a champion. Identify at least one person with appropriate political pull or stature in your institution who plays a pivotal role in strategic planning, who understands the crisis and is willing to support your efforts publicly.

Work with your HR department. Working with your campus human resources department in these educational efforts will bring home the fact that this is not just an IT organization problem but one that requires institutional attention.

Unfortunately, it may take the loss of strategic personnel to have your educational effort driven home. If possible, ask the departing staff for a description of the new job offer in their exit interviews and forward a copy to key campus skeptics. Once articulated as an institution-wide problem, it will be easier to address the tough questions regarding trade-offs and encourage other departments to address their own support issues.

Manage the situation, not just the people

Hiring and keeping good people at your campus is critical to the realization of your IT direction and mission. Here are some things you can do to alleviate the impact of turnover in your organization:

Network. Keep your eyes open for potential staff. Get to know and work with students and staff at your own institution and others. Keep in touch with talented alumni who may want to move back and work for their alma mater. Look out for new hires before you need them, and keep their names on file.

Recruit aggressively. Can you offer the salary and job on the spot if you have the opportunity? If you or one of your staff attends a technical conference and you talk to a person with potential, what can you do? You will need to work with your HR department to increase the options you have in this regard (see the discussion below about other areas in which you will need to work with HR). You may want to advertise in a non-technical magazine or a Usenet newsgroup that matches your area with hobbies of potential employees; for instance, consider placing a position advertisement in a ski magazine if your institution is located in skiing country.

Hire bright people and train them. In addition to seasoned technology staff, look out for others who may not be technology-trained but who have potential ability and interest in your projects and problems. This may mean training recent graduates in much-needed technical job skills, putting an apprenticeship program in place for talented students, or identifying and seeking funding for temporary trainee staff positions. Make professional development a priority. In your department plans, ensure that your staff's continuing education is a priority. Agree on developmental objectives at individual personnel reviews. Encourage staff who find it hard to learn new things to stretch a bit. Discuss the importance of continuing education with those who don't understand why it's critical in a technical field. Institute an education matching pool for department technical people who may not have the funds to go to conferences and learn new things. Professional development is critical to the careers of technical staff and most of them know it. They may receive better offers if they are more highly skilled, but it is certain they will leave if they are not offered opportunities to improve and progress. Educate the administration and faculty as to why your staff must attend conferences and seminars, read books in their field, and take time to learn, conveying how those activities affect the implementation of the institution's goals for technology.

Pay as much as you can. Avoid waiting until your critical personnel become dissatisfied with their salaries. If possible, keep their compensation in the upper tier of the institution's technical salaries and competitive within the local area. Most people do not leave their jobs because of salary only. But they may leave if they think they are not being paid commensurately with their perceived peers. Avoid offering raises, however, when personnel threaten to take another position. You could be initiating a practice that you cannot sustain.

Keep your star people. Work very hard to keep your most talented personnel. Help them pursue their interests as much as possible, but don't overload them and burn them out. Also, make allowances for good technical people who want a chance to change jobs. If that means a top performer wants to move from one department to another, then view this as an institutional opportunity to keep talented staff. Plan for a transitional period, and have the person assist in hiring and training his or her replacement.

Move people out of their box. Review your operations and projects, and who is doing what. If your critical assignments are only on the lists of two technical staff members, and they change jobs, you will be in trouble. You also could be overworking them. Consider assigning technically qualified personnel to jobs they have not done before, either helping them to grow into the jobs or retraining them. Granted, it may take some time for the staff to come up to speed, but in the long run it creates a more versatile team. Look at creative ways of supporting the service in the interim, such as using temporary outside consultants.

Practice good management. Read some of the excellent books published on effective management techniques. Good managers define outcomes, then work with and encourage their staff to achieve results. These managers also critique the performance, not the performer. Work with staff to find out what projects they're interested in and what aspects of the job motivate them, then work to get them those things. A recent study by the Concours Group concluded that compensation is not just salary: " an unhealthy work environment, people will forego retention bonuses or take a pay cut to leave for a more fulfilling environment. Managers need to address all the factors that make working for the company worth it to the employee."6 Remember that your staff are people who have goals, interests, and personal relationships outside the workplace.

Create a forum for technical staff around the campus. Ask questions and talk with technical people around campus about how to work more smoothly together. At Michigan Tech, the systems infrastructure, network, and many campuswide applications are managed centrally while the department desktops and specific software are managed by the departments. To encourage communication, we set up a bimonthly meeting for the central and distributed support personnel to come together and share ideas and solutions. Many times, one person is struggling with a problem that is very similar to one experienced by someone in another department. These meetings often help reduce the isolation the departmental technical staff may feel.

Work with your HR department from the start. Many of the suggestions above are dependent on working closely with your HR department, especially where salary, benefits, classifications, "perks," and job flexibility are concerned. Two practices that can help strengthen your HR/IT partnership include:

Plan your technical operations and trade-offs to minimize risk

One strategy for minimizing institutional risk from staff turnover is to design your technical architecture and operations with staff turnover in mind. Some relevant strategies include the following:

Make risk management a priority. Your institution should know how far out on the cutting edge it wants, or can afford, to be. It may choose to do less in-house development and more integration of existing standards and packages. You may have lower overall risk paying for technical support from a large vendor instead of having to provide the expertise necessary for your own support. This points to the fact that staff turnover is only one element in managing risks and costs.

An excellent outcome of IT partnering with HR is Virginia Commonwealth University's Information Technoology Compensation Program. Launched in January, 1996, their goal was to "...provide a flexible, market-competitive compensation program which would reward performance, encourage employee skill development, help attract and retain qualified technology employees, provide employees greater career development opportunity and decentralize compensation decision-making to the department level."8 With this program VCU is tackling personnel from recruitment to retraining, including defining a technical promotion path.

Encourage departments to consider their own staff risk. Be creative when thinking of how to work with campus departments to reduce their staff risk. For example, an IT organization may have redundant database administrators for the administrative system. However, if you have a distributed support model on your campus, is the same true for the academic departments? You can recommend redundant support within a logical boundary. For example, at Michigan Tech, we have redundancy within the College of Sciences and Arts and the College of Engineering, even though each department within those colleges is autonomous. The technical staff have shared root passwords. They arrange for backup during vacations, sick time, and so forth. Each department head knows who he or she can call if the primary system administrator is out of the office.

Develop a strategy to do what you need to do. Ask yourself the question "How can I do things better?" If your institution has decided not to do extensive research and widely adopt new technologies, you must still continue to implement those things that make sense strategically. To do this, however, you may want to reduce your support burden, freeing up staff to make more informed decisions for the technologies you do want to support. Analyze projects or operations that are staff intensive. Some of the issues you may need to resolve are:

Get involved in planning and policy making

Planning for the appropriate implementation and support of technology is important at all levels of the institution. Before you can develop and implement operational technology plans, you need to understand the context of your operations.

Check your institution's strategic plan. Is information technology integral to the mission of your institution and included in all stages of planning, or is it viewed as a background function to support the administrative system? How aggressive does your institution want to be in adopting new technologies? Each institution has its own view of the importance of technology to its mission.

Create a campus communications forum. If your institution has not already addressed technology in its strategic planning process, you may need to encourage the creation of a forum for faculty and technical staff to talk about appropriate uses of technology. Even if there is a plan that addresses institution-wide technology investment and use strategies, there is benefit to fostering a group on campus that represents the broadest possible constituency to ensure that faculty understand the pressures felt by technical staff and that such staff become more aware of the communication and technology needs of faculty.9

Include technical personnel on policy committees. Work toward getting technology staff appointed to institutional policy committees to help educate the community about possible broad deployment issues. Committees will better understand the bigger technical picture, and your staff will come away with creative ideas on how to address these issues before the deployment plan has been drafted.


Managing the impact of IT staff turnover means doing much more than just managing personnel. You also need to address resource needs from design to deployment to decommission. This means educating your institutional and departmental leaders about the importance of recruiting, retaining, and retraining staff; planning for technology at an appropriate institutional level; and managing your technical operations to improve redundancy and reduce staff burnout. The bottom line, however, is the same: your role is one of stewardship for both your staff and your campus.

We are already running hard to stay ahead of (or even with) our research sponsors, the government's regulations, the needs of undergraduate and graduate students, and the pressures of supporting faculty to deliver student-centered and distributed learning. We have a great challenge ahead of us, and if we do not have the quintessential infrastructure-the talent to make it happen-we will surely not succeed.


1 America's New Deficit: The Shortage of Information Technology Workers (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Commerce, Office of Technology Policy, 1997), 1. This document is available online at

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2 Update: America's New Deficit (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Commerce, Office of Technology Policy, 1998), 1. This updated document is available online at

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3 Help Wanted: The IT Workforce Gap At the Dawn of a New Century (Washington, D.C.: Information Technology Association of America, 1997), 4. For information about how to obtain the annual ITAA workforce reports, see

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4 America's New Deficit.

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5 Goldie Blumenstyk, "Study Warns of Shortage of People Trained for Technology Jobs," The Chronicle of Higher Education, 7 March 1997, A26; Jeffrey R. Young, "Many 2-Year Colleges in California Play Catch-Up in Computing," The Chronicle of Higher Education, 2 May 1997, A27; and Jeffrey R. Young, "Shortage of Technology Professionals Prompts Joint Study," The Chronicle of Higher Education, 10 October 1997, A28.

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6 "Corporate IT and HR Departments Together Should Adopt 'Life Cycle' Approach to Ease Technology Skills Shortage, According to New Concours Group Study," press release from The Concours Group, 27 August 1998, online at

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7 System Administrators' Guild, Job Descriptions for System Administrators (Berkeley: The USENIX Association, 1993). For more information about USENIX and System Administrators' Guild, see

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8 From the Information Technology Compensation Program Manual, developed by the Human Resources division of the Virginia Commonwealth University. This manual is online at

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9 One program that offers assistance in setting up such a communications vehicle on campus is the American Associaton of Higher Edu-cation's Teaching, Learning, and Technology Round-table program. For more information, see http://www.tltgroup.rg/#Teaching_Learning.

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Ann West ([email protected]) is Manager, Distributed Computing Services, in the Information Technology department at Michigan Technological University. the table of contents

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