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The Tech Talent Shortage Myth

At the annual conference of the Advanced Cyber Security Center (ACSC) last month, William Gruenther, the organization's founder and chairman, asked attendees how many of them were having a hard time finding the talent they need in cyber security. About half raised their hands.

Indeed, tech executives -- and information security executives in particular -- have been moaning a lot about not being able to find enough talented workers. According to a recent survey by the Technology Councils of North America, approximately 69% of US technology executives perceive a moderate to significant shortage of talent in the technology sector. Thirty-four percent indicate that it is likely that they will use more foreign workers, for example, through various work visa programs.

Despite these reports, numerous underemployed technology professionals are loudly shouting that they are, in fact, available and capable, according to the InformationWeek report, IT Talent Crunch. The report describes a "purple squirrel" hiring tactic, whereby companies seek a job candidate whose mix of skills and experience is impossible to find; the tactic is purposely used to thin out the number of applicants.

While discussing corporate cultural challenges to cyber security and the so-called "talent shortage" at the ACSC conference, Akamai Technologies CSO Andy Ellis decried the purple squirrel hunters of company HR departments, citing ridiculous (but all-too-familiar) job requirements such as having12 years' experience in Windows 8.

"If you have a [gender] diversity problem, this is why," Ellis blasted. Men "are totally willing to lie and say, 'Yeah, I've got 12 years' experience in Windows 8.' "

Ellis's remarks are backed by research.  According to the September 2008 issue of the McKinsey Quarterly, internal research at Hewlett-Packard indicated that men would apply for promotions when they felt they met 60% of the listed requirements for the job, whereas women would only apply if they met 100% of the listed requirements.

Alas, tech employers are so eager to take care of H-1B visas, L-1 visas, and other programs that allow them to bring in foreign nationals for low pay that they are doing a disservice to both themselves and the talented women and men in their own backyards. 

While the United States is far from the only nation to have a gender disparity in the technology sector, Yehuda Yaakov, Consul General of Israel to New England, reports that this disparity is virtually nil in Israel's cyber security industry.

"I've seen as many women in the room as men," Yaakov said at the ACSC conference when an audience member asked him about Israel's gender diversity in cyber security.  Because "this is a security-based issue, we dip into the pot… to get the very best we can get."

Certainly, this is the real value of gender diversity in the workplace -- not to accommodate a quota with a checkmark, but rather to ensure that talent and potential is actively sought out, fostered, nurtured, and taken full advantage of wherever it may be. Similarly, technology recruiters would be well advised to put their purple-squirrel-hunting, keyword-rife checklists down and just take a look around at the talent that they're missing.