Now hiring: Industry scrambles to fill critical positions despite competition

Shortfall of IT workers reaching at least 100,000 per year

Unless your facility has a large information technology (IT) budget and is located in an attractive part of the country, you’re probably struggling to fill your IT and health information management positions. What’s more, the problem may get even worse.

"It is becoming more difficult to fill IT positions for a couple of reasons," says Kirsten Bardeen, an executive recruiter for Snelling Executive in Altamonte Springs, FL. Snelling focuses on filling IT positions from the programmer to the CIO level.

"A lot of [facilities] are trying to retain their employees during the year 2000 (Y2K) challenge. Information technology people across the nation are also not entering the marketplace as much as they are needed. There is a shortfall of at least 100,000 people every year based on information that we have from 1998," explains Bardeen.

Although meeting the Y2K challenge has been a catalyst for staffing problems, the primary issue is the industry’s rate of change, says Sandra R. Fuller, MA, RRA, vice president of practice leadership for the American Health Information Management Association in Chicago. "Employees may have been qualified and good workers and well-skilled five years ago, but unless they personally [have had more training] or their employer has done something to keep their skills current, they’re not going to be very valuable now. That’s a remarkable rate of change if you think about other professions, other types of jobs. It is a unique environment."

The rate of change might keep some people from entering the IT field, Fuller says. "There is probably some hesitancy on their part to invest a lot of time into a field where the rate of change is so great."

Not only do health care facilities have to deal with a shortfall of IT workers, but they have to compete with other industries for them. "The unique thing about IT professionals, in particular, is that they can work in other industries. You’re not just competing in the health care industry," she says.

For example, health care facilities in Seattle must compete for IT employees with such companies as Microsoft, which can offer its employees stock options.

Although facilities don’t have to compete with corporations such as Microsoft for health information management professionals, they are struggling with meeting this demand, too. "The demand keeps increasing and is at fevered pitch right now between the spread of prospective payment and all of the different delivery mechanisms, which require more coding," Fuller explains.

The number of two-year technical programs training these professionals are growing, but health care facilities must increase the pay scale of these positions — which have not been historically well-paid — to attract more employees.

Right now, health information management professionals also must endure pressure to produce a lot of work combined with the issues of compliance. "You are increasing the level of demand on accuracy and individual accountability. That’s having a fair amount to do with the shortage," Fuller says.

How do you compete?

To compete for these scarce workers, health care facilities first and foremost must be competitive in the salaries they offer, Fuller says.

Employers also must take responsibility for training their employees. Many facilities are sending employees to school to keep their skills current, such as getting Microsoft or UNIX certifications. The institutions are paying for the training and allowing employees to train on company time. "Facilities are trying to invest in their employees’ skills," adds Fuller.

Training goes hand-in-hand with another recommendation from Fuller, which is to match employees’ skills to the job. "That is critical — set up people to succeed rather than to fail," she says. "We believe that to be successful, an organization ought to appropriately use a blend of both the skills of an information technician and of an information manager." For example, don’t assign a person interested in working with computer technology to work with information management, such as systems analysis and implementation. "They are not going to be as successful nor as happy, and you probably are wasting a resource that’s in short demand."

Often the success of matching employees with positions involves finding out what employees want to achieve next and training them to meet that goal.

"I don’t think that [employers] in the past have done a good job of asking what employees want to do next and then trying to position them for that job. I see some of the more successful facilities doing that, taking a longer-term view of keeping employees trained." Management also needs to be aware of the kind of computing environment it is providing employees, Fuller says.

The working environment of the entire facility should be considered when hiring new IT employees, Bardeen says. Employees in smaller, rural facilities, for example, may be required to do a variety of different tasks. "You have to find a person who thrives on that challenge and who wants to cut his or her teeth on it."

A good match of employee to position may be short-circuited, though, by a lack of flexibility in working conditions. "Health care is going to have to address [workplace] flexibility," Fuller says. Flexibility issues include telecommuting and the availability of working different hours.

"A lot of places routinely expect huge amounts of overtime and for employees to be married to their jobs," she says. "You can do that for a short period of time, but over the long haul, it’s not a successful strategy. Employees burn out; you need to find a better staffing plan."

Managers also should think about what their staffing needs will be after the Y2K frenzy is over. "I think there will be a lot of shifting [in workload] sometime in the second quarter of next year," Fuller says. "That will be an opportunity to hire some employees."

IT employees will be needed to take on other jobs to get back to regular business. "Anticipate what kind of skills you’ll need and what kind of work you will have later next year at this time," Fuller says. Now is the time to learn what employees want to do next year and how prepared they are to do it, she adds. "Maybe you can’t send them off to school right now or before the end of the year, but you can start to investigate your options."

And don’t forget to tell employees that you have a post-Y2K plan and that they are a part of it. "Frequently, employees are frustrated with not knowing what is happening," Fuller says.