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How companies can win in the tech-talent battlegrounds

Kate Smaje

Kate is a senior partner at McKinsey and the global leader of McKinsey Digital.

The demands on technology in business – for speed, flexibility, reliability, security, and value – have never been greater. For CIOs surveying how to transform their organizations, one tricky question is emerging: “Where do I find the people to do all the work?”

Many companies aren’t treating tech talent with the urgency it demands. Respondents to a recent McKinsey survey report more significant impact from tech-talent transformations than from any other technology-based play. 

Companies winning in this arena have identified the tech skills they need, and developed a clear view of their present and future tech-talent requirements. These leaders understand that it’s impossible to hire everyone they need; training and reskilling the existing workforce has to be a core part of the strategy to win the talent battle.

The next three to five years

To better understand what tech talent will matter most in the next three to five years, we spoke with hundreds of global CIOs, analyzed talent developments, and reviewed more than 30 cross-cutting tech trends. We identified ~4,000 tech skills, and broke them into seven “battlegrounds” of need: DevOps, customer experience, cloud, automation, platforms and products, data management, and cybersecurity and privacy.

Significant skills gaps in these areas already exist. In Germany, 700,000 additional tech specialists will be needed by 2023 to meet the economy’s demand for them.1 Globally, 3.5 million cybersecurity positions are projected to be unfilled in 2021.2

To succeed in the seven tech-talent battlegrounds, companies will need to use a set of well-considered strategies, including hiring, reskilling (training employees for new roles), and upskilling (training within an existing role). 

Hire adaptable learners

Technology skills evolve quickly: when hiring, companies should look for “strong talent” that has the ability to learn and adapt. As one executive notes, “We’re not looking for people with skills; we’re looking for people who can learn skills.”

The flip side of this is nurturing an environment for learning. In a survey of IT experts, the majority regard employee training as a crucial driver of career success, even more important than IT certifications.3 Beyond formal training, the best companies provide their people with time to learn, budgets for experimentation, and access to new technologies, as well as flexible career paths that provide additional learning opportunities.

Practical guide for reskilling and upskilling

The World Economic Forum reports that ~54 percent of employees will need reskilling and upskilling by 2022. Of these, 35 percent will require up to six months of training, 9 percent will need six to 12 months, and 10 percent more than a year.4

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The most effective programs will focus on the following four practices:

  • Use budget strategically

    Reskilling is cheaper than hiring. Large tech organizations understand this and often opt to invest more significantly in reskilling their workforce. Effective reskilling and upskilling doesn’t require large outlays: companies can move towards targeted learning journeys focused on top-priority areas, and the courses can be short. Tech-learning providers offer introductory courses that take only a few hours, or degree programs that can be completed within three to six months with less than 15 hours of learning effort per week.5


  • Build learning journeys

    A learning journey is a set of connected learning experiences that drive sustained performance improvements. It blends a variety of different training formats, such as digital, cohort-based, or on-the job learning.

    COVID-19 has accelerated the full digitization of all learning-journey components. These dynamics not only make it possible to scale learning efforts more cost effectively, but also offer greater personalization for learners.


  • Learning needs to be a top management priority

    The most effective CHRO and CIO partnerships ensure that their training investments align with the company’s overall strategy. They continuously assess skills gaps and design targeted learning journeys.


  • Don’t forget your nontech employees
  • Nontech people need tech skills, too. With the continued importance of technology in driving business value, technology can no longer be relegated to “an IT thing.” While people on the business side don’t need to know how to code, they do need to learn how to use technology better. The continued democratization of data can also allow for “laypeople” to use data to make better and faster decisions without relying on complex IT processes.

    Furthermore, CIOs often assume that only IT people can be reskilled, and typically underestimate the possibility of reskilling employees from nontech departments. But increasing evidence shows that reskilling nontech people for tech roles can be effective.6

*  *  *

Given the rapidly changing nature of business and technology, companies will always be facing technology-skills gaps. But organizations that are willing to dedicate the energy, focus, and resources to continually closing – or, in some cases, even leapfrogging – those gaps can win in the most important talent battlegrounds.

For further reading on the topic, please read, How companies can win in the seven tech-talent battlegrounds.


1. McKinsey Global Survey on IT and the Business, August 2020.

2. Steve Morgan “Cybersecurity talent crunch to create 3.5 million unfilled jobs globally by 2021,” Cybersecurity Ventures, October 24, 2019, cybersecurityventures.com.

3. “What IT pros think about IT training,” LinkedIn, January 2017, learning.linkedin.com.

4. The future of jobs report 2018, World Economic Forum, September 2018, weforum.org.

5. Course overview of online learning providers Udacity and Coursera, 2020.

6.Coursera blog, “Learned code and switched careers as a developer,” February 24, 2017, blog.coursera.org.

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