There’s Much More to the Tech Talent Shortage Than the ‘Great Resignation’: Q&A With Jeff Weber, Executive Director, Robert Half

By Robert Half on March 30, 2022 at 1:00pm

Welcome to the latest post in Robert Half’s Thought Leader Q&A series, which features insights from those who have made our company a great place to work and a premier provider of talent solutions.

This post features Jeff Weber, executive director of the technology practice at Robert Half, who supports operations for more than 100 of our company’s locations worldwide. Jeff assumed his current role at Robert Half in 2018 after spending 16 years with global consulting firm Protiviti, a Robert Half subsidiary, where he was a managing director in the technology consulting practice.

Jeff was one of the founding managing directors at Protiviti, which was created in 2002. Before that, he was a partner with the former “Big Five” accounting firm, Arthur Andersen. Over his nearly 40-year career — which includes several years working as a computer programmer — Jeff has developed deep experience in areas such as information security, software design and development, data management, enterprise architecture, IT process improvement, and IT strategy and governance.

“Before I joined Arthur Andersen in 1996, I worked for a consulting company, where I helped write software for a bank,” says Jeff. “I also worked for a manufacturing company, where I was involved with various software projects.” He adds, “That was back in the 1980s and early 90s, and I was working with programming languages like Fortran and COBOL. Those languages are still in use, but they are not exactly in high demand. So, I’m not sure I could get back into coding so easily, even if I wanted to!”

Here’s what else Jeff shared with us about his career, what trends he’s observing in the technology hiring market, and the special construction project he has underway in the mountains of Pennsylvania:

Where are you from originally?

I was born and raised in Pittsburgh, Pa., but I went to high school in Charlotte, N.C. After college, I went back to Charlotte and spent seven years there. Then, after a few years in Greenville, S.C. I moved back to Pittsburgh in 1996 for a job opportunity.

What’s a fun fact about your career path?

I worked in a paper mill in Catawba, N.C., just outside of Charlotte, for four years. The mill was owned by Bowater, which was the largest manufacturer of lightweight coated paper in the United States in the 1980s. The company was acquired several times and no longer exists under that name.

I remember my friends couldn’t understand why I wanted to work somewhere that smelled so bad — and it really did smell bad because of the chemicals used to process the wood. But I thought it was fun, learning what it takes to manufacture paper. The mill had a 30-foot-wide machine that would spin off 20-ton reels of paper every few minutes. It was a high-speed, continuous process that I found fascinating.

The job at the paper mill was a technology job?

Yes, I worked for the chief engineer on IT systems, and our offices were inside the mill. It was a good job — and I appreciated the significant raise I got when I joined the company from my previous job programming software. I was 25 years old then, and soon to be a dad.

I do remember getting in trouble with the plant manager not long after I started, though. I was the only one coming to work in a suit, and one day he said to me, “If I ever see you in a tie again, I’ll fire you on the spot!”

What type of projects did you work on?

The paper mill had systems and software related to inventory control, production management and shipping. I helped integrate the process control systems that ran the machines with management and operation reporting systems. I was creating tools to help plant managers optimize operations throughout the mill.

Keep in mind, this was when technology didn’t do these tasks easily. Our team had to create data repositories and get systems to talk to each other at a time when most data was still on paper. We were literally training people how to use a keyboard — 30 veterans of the paper industry who had never even touched a keyboard before. This was early upskilling, early data science, and the early use of graphs and data to monitor production quality control. Quality control itself was a new concept during this time.

That must have been a big transition, moving from the paper mill to a global accounting firm?

Well, it’s probably not a common transition to go from a paper mill to a firm like Arthur Andersen. But working at the mill gave me some tools and knowledge that helped me take that next step. I was also able to earn my MBA from Clemson University while I was working at the mill.

The work at Arthur Andersen was definitely different. When you write software for a bank, it’s all kind of cerebral — the account management, the reporting. In contrast, the paper mill is a very physical environment, where you’re taking machine speeds and operations and turning them into efficiencies and production reporting. At Andersen, I worked with clients across industries and helped executives improve controls and governance over their technology environment.

Let’s talk about your current role as executive director of the technology practice at Robert Half. What are some trends you’re observing in the technology hiring market?

We’ve heard a lot about the “Great Resignation” in recent months, which refers to the many professionals who have left their jobs to find a new opportunity that they see as different or better. One thing many people may not think about, though, is that not everyone leaves their job to find another one. For example, many baby boomers have decided to retire earlier than expected because the COVID-19 pandemic experience prompted them to rethink their personal and professional priorities.

The departure of baby boomers with technology experience from the workforce is worsening the shortage of technology talent that existed well before the pandemic. The rapid acceleration of digital transformation in many businesses because of the pandemic is also creating more demand for new and more advanced skills that were already hard to find before the crisis.

We’re in a unique time in history for the technology workforce. Demand for skilled talent is at an all-time high. And anything that can be automated is being automated. That means employers need problem-solving labor in their technology workforce who can automate tasks and processes and handle whatever specialized work can’t be automated. That’s a tall order.

How are employers overcoming tech recruiting challenges?

First, we see many companies changing their labor model. They’re supplementing their internal resources with contract professionals not just for scalability or to staff specific projects, but to access in-demand skills on an ongoing basis as business needs change. The traditional training paradigm was to train up new hires and existing staff in whatever technology the enterprise uses. But that approach doesn’t really work anymore because technology changes so rapidly now.

Also, many employers are expanding their remote teams. The rise of remote work during the pandemic has opened the door for many businesses to recruit top candidates from outside of their geographic area. And this trend isn’t just benefitting companies in big markets like New York City, Chicago or Seattle. Now you see companies in places like Charlotte, N.C., Nashville, Tenn., and Jacksonville, Fla., accessing skilled talent in markets that they couldn’t really compete in effectively before.

We’ve had major technology changes for the last 25 years, and yet the labor model never really changed. I think this is the first time in my 35 years in business that I’ve seen the labor model itself foundationally start to change.

Companies are realizing they need to create a more variable pool of talent that will allow them to have continuous access to in-demand knowledge and skills.

How has the pandemic changed the way that you work?

I used to travel Monday through Thursday, eight or nine out of every 10 weeks. So, working from home all the time was a complete change — although I already had a nice office at home, so the transition was pretty easy. I will say it’s been nice not having to drive 18 miles into town to get to the office or hop on airplanes to travel to meetings. I also haven’t had to worry about the weather outside much. And at the end of the workday, I can just “commute” from my office to the kitchen.

What do you like to do when you’re not working?

My wife and I love spending time with our two grandchildren. We’re also building a log home here in Pennsylvania, in the mountains and along a trout stream. That project has been taking up a lot of our time.

That’s one thing we didn’t enjoy as much as we should have before the pandemic — being outside. I’ve been a suburban guy all my life, so I’m used to the pace of towns and cities. But now, my wife and I like spending more time outdoors, and we’re really enjoying it.

Follow Jeff Weber on LinkedIn.

Meet other Thought Leaders at Robert Half, such as Stephanie Dolmat and Ryan M. Sutton. And be sure to subscribe to the Robert Half newsletter for future installments of our Q&A series and to discover more unique stories, experiences and perspectives on the latest hiring trends.

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