How to deal with network-operations brain drain

If you can’t find qualified candidates for NetOps jobs, automate what you can, and hire someone smart and willing to learn who can train for the job you need filled.

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Even before the tight labor market that emerged in the later stages of the pandemic, enterprise network operations teams were struggling to hire personnel, especially people with advanced technical skills. It’s safe to say the pandemic has only exacerbated the situation.

Over the last six years, Enterprise Management Associates (EMA) has observed a significant decline in the effectiveness of network operations teams. EMA’s ongoing, biennial Network Management Megatrends research asks NetOps professionals to assess the success of their teams every two years. In 2016, 49% were fully successful. In 2022, only 27% reported total success. EMA believes that the current IT job market is partly to blame.

Skills shortage, travel restrictions, benefits

The 2022 iteration of the research asked participants to identify their top barriers to NetOps success. The top issue, as selected by 27% of respondents, was a “shortage of skilled personnel.”

EMA dug a little deeper, asking participants whether they felt it was difficult or easy to hire and retain personnel with network-technology expertise. Only 12.5% described hiring and retention of personnel as very easy. Organizations that struggle with hiring were more likely to report a lack of network operations success.

The research identified several issues preventing NetOps teams from finding good people. First and foremost, 47% reported that the talent pools available to them lack the specialized technical skills they are looking for.

Forty-percent said they are dealing with COVID-related issues, such as economic uncertainty and travel restrictions. A network-security architect with a large bank said, “It seems like there are not a lot of talented people applying. From my experience, when there are turbulent times, a lot of talent sits tight.”

A network engineer with a Fortune 100 consumer goods manufacturer noted that travel restrictions have caused problems hiring people for his group. “As a global company, if someone based in Costa Rica needs to fly to the US for a job, it’s not possible,” he said.

Another 40% said that employment benefits have become a challenge. People want better flexibility on the job and stronger healthcare coverage. EMA believes this is additional fallout from the pandemic.

Automation: Doing more with less

Finally, 40% cited IT leadership’s desire for lean operations. They want NetOps teams to do more with less. In EMA’s ongoing interactions with network-operations leaders, the issue of attrition has come up again and again, and the early days of the pandemic exacerbated this issue. Vacated jobs have gone unfilled and not necessarily because the right people aren’t available. Instead, the CIO’s office keeps the job open to save money. And they expect NetOps to overcome this attrition by automating operations. In fact, 78% of research respondents agreed that network automation tools can remediate this issue to some degree.

Unfortunately, IT organizations can’t magically implement network automation to fix the issue. It takes time to get automation up and running. It also requires the right people. Research participants identified network automation as the second most difficult skill to hire for today (35%).

Network security skills are the hardest to come by (37%). Network monitoring (32%), network troubleshooting (29%) and public cloud networking (29%) round out the top five skills that NetOps teams are struggling to hire.

What to do

There are several things you can do to address this talent shortage. As we already mentioned, network automation can help. Second, EMA has found that teams that are struggling the most with hiring are making adjustments to their network operations toolsets. First, they are seeking tools that offer integrated security insights. They also favor tools with strong mapping and visualization of data. And finally, they are enhancing their ability to implement network-usage policy enforcement.

Several research participants also offered some good advice.  

“It’s important to have someone with a decent IQ and a willingness to learn,” said an IT operations manager with a very large government agency. “A good personality is way more important than knowing absolutely everything about technology. You can train someone who is new, give them experience and responsibility. If they want that, it works out great.”

“I look for potential,” said a network team manager with a Fortune 100 pharmaceutical company. “I ask, ‘What have you done?’ Based on that answer, if he understands technically what he has done on the job, I believe he can learn to work on a new technology. We don’t often hire for top-tier skills in a very specific technology. We’re just looking for general networking skills.”

In other words, look for smart people who want to learn. They need a minimum of technical skills, but they can learn the rest on the job. This means that you must be prepared to devote resources to training and mentoring them and give them the space and time to learn. In EMA’s opinion, NetOps teams need to invest in people, not just technology.

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