Talk about the IT skills gap often sounds alarmist. After all, with post-secondary schools now creating tech-specific programming and companies aware of the value offered by full-time equivalent (FTE) specialists, the so-called gap can’t be so worrisome, right? Not quite.

According to Bloomberg, 45 percent of small businesses can’t find qualified applicants to fill job openings in the technology sector. And the biggest gap in IT skills? Cybersecurity.

So should IT leaders double down on company benefits and pair up with post-secondary schools to hire interns and recruit new talent? Maybe. But there’s another option: the gig economy. Here’s a look at the ins and outs of hiring freelancers to fill your IT talent gaps.

The Growing Gig Economy

So what exactly is the gig economy? It has more than few names: Some members of the community call themselves freelancers, others refer to themselves as 1099 workers. Executives, such as chief information officers (CIOs) and chief information security officers (CISOs), might call them contingent workers, but ultimately the moniker doesn’t really matter — gig workers are those hired to complete a specific job, often four to six months in length, and are recruited based on both their industry experience and particular skill set.

As noted by Inc., this freelance economy is huge, with more than 50 million Americans now part of the new gig ecosystem. Early successes have paved the way for long-term adoption. According to consulting firm Deloitte, 42 percent of executives surveyed said they planned to “increase or significantly increase” the number of contingent workers they hire over the next three to five years.

Potential Benefits

Opting for freelance talent comes with a number of benefits for IT-seeking companies. Most people making the shift to contingent work are mid-career and highly skilled, meaning they’ve got the double benefit of education and on-the-job experience. They’re also not looking to get tied down with a specific company, preferring instead to see a project through to completion and then shift their energy to a new challenge.

Make no mistake: They don’t come cheap. But in an IT world facing the uphill climb of a skills gap, it’s worth paying more for great, limited-time talent rather than trying to track down the mythical unicorn of IT staffing, a freshly minted IT professional with uncommon maturity willing to take an entry-level salary to tackle extremely complex tasks.

While the gig economy doesn’t guarantee a best fit hire, it does give companies the ability to seek out expertise ideal for specific initiatives, pay well for the service and conclude the contract with mutual satisfaction. Under an FTE model, meanwhile, it’s critical for organizations to justify the cost of hiring, training and retaining full-time staff by ensuring there’s always work available. Put simply, gig workers fill a specific need, while FTEs provide generalized support.

Doing It Right

So how do companies access the gig economy and ensure they’re getting the best talent to fill their needs? Start with a plan. What specific project requires the assistance of a freelancer? What skills do they need to bring and how long will their engagement last? Is the plan to ask for bids or advertise a firm offer? Is there any chance of extending the contract?

While it’s possible to answer all these questions through the hiring and initial startup phase of the project, setting goals in advance helps lower complexity, and ensure that both freelancer and company needs are effectively met. It’s also worth considering the role of remote working: Is telecommuting an option for freelance workers, or do they need to be in the office at all times?

As noted by The New York Times, companies must tread carefully when it comes to leveraging the difference between FTEs and gig workers. While contingent working is nothing new, the rise of white-collar freelance is of relatively recent make. Some organizations are leveraging the lack of rules surrounding freelancers — for example, there’s no requirement to offer freelance workers benefits packages or pay overtime — to lower the total cost of projects at the expense of contingent worker satisfaction. Although this may accomplish a short-term goal, the IT community is both insular and informative, meaning any reputation a company has when it comes to dealing with freelancers is well-known by members of the gig economy, and bad reputations equal rapidly shrinking talent pools.

Plugging Security Holes

According to Tech Digg, IT freelancers are in high demand. Specifically, companies are looking for workers skilled in big data mining, artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, the Internet of Things (IoT) and information security, in addition to virtually any position containing the word “network” in the job title. As noted by Entrepreneur, in fact, there are more than 1 million unfilled cybersecurity positions worldwide, with many left unfilled for six months or more.

But while CISOs are looking to build out their security knowledge and environment using freelance knowledge, it’s critical to ensure that hiring new staff doesn’t prompt accidental security breaches tied to their presence on the corporate network. Companies must develop onboarding processes that specifically address confidentiality, appropriate network use and corporate intellectual property.

Along with effective orientation, contingent workers also need to sign nondisclosure agreements and follow corporate policy when it comes to basic security best practices. Compliance violations inadvertently caused by freelance staff remain the responsibility of the company; contingent employee status does not absolve corporations of compliance requirements.

Going Gig

FTE or freelance? Career IT or contingent worker? While many companies still prefer the security that comes with hiring full-time staff, the growing IT skills gap makes this a difficult — and expensive — proposition. In the new gig economy, meanwhile, enterprises and small businesses alike can find exactly the expertise they need, when they need it. Backed by solid job descriptions, fair treatment and effective onboarding, going gig may prove a more forward-thinking investment than finding FTEs.

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