Robert Half’s Thought Leader Q&A series 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, industry research and insights, at Robert Half. In this unique and recently created role, Jeff is responsible for helping our business to stay on top of — or even ahead of — the latest staffing and consulting trends across the various industries that we work with, including technology. His work, which includes overseeing our data and analysis programs, helps to inform the strategies our company uses to develop, refine and deliver talent solutions that meet the needs of businesses around the globe.
Jeff was previously the executive director of the technology practice group at Robert Half, a position he had held since 2018. (Ryan M. Sutton now serves in that role at our company.) Prior to that, Jeff spent 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 1990s, 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 position 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.
What are some trends that you have been observing in the technology hiring market, specifically?
In the past few years, we’ve seen many professionals leave 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 decided to retire earlier than expected because the recent 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 is also creating more demand for new and more advanced skills that are challenging to find in the hiring market.
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 and hybrid work because of 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 benefiting 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 did the recent pandemic change 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 nice not having to drive 18 miles into town every day to get to the office or hop on airplanes to travel to meetings. I don’t have to worry about the weather outside much. And at the end of most workdays, 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 three grandchildren. We’ve also been 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 spend more time outdoors, and we really enjoy it.
Follow Jeff Weber on LinkedIn.
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