The debate

There are few thornier issues than the skill shortage in the IT market. On the one hand there are a collection of highly-paid jobs available, and on the other, there are a gaggle of semi-suitable people available to do them. looks at the issue.

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By  Colin Browne Published  March 29, 2001

Introduction|~||~||~|Top-flight technical and sales people are hard to find—not because they don’t exist—but precisely because their rarity leads their current employers to guard them jealously. Unmatchable salaries and other golden handcuff-type incentives are the order of the day. If you can afford them, that is.

Channel partners complain that they cannot afford to spend on salaries and incentives the way that multi-billion dollar international vendors can, and that their best people are therefore subject to constant headhunting. It is no joke, according to Seven Seas director of strategy and people, Mehboob Hamza, who claims to have lost 17 skilled employees to his vendor partners in recent years.

The alternatives to poaching the local market seem to be to continue to struggle, take on whatever unsuitable personnel is available locally, seek cheap labour in new markets such as the CIS, or—the favourite of ASPGulf’s COO Robert Lovelace—outsource.

On March 13, 2001, CRN assembled a panel of experts including the two mentioned above, to define the skill shortage, and come up with some solutions.

Also on the panel were Yasser Zeineldin, regional business development manager for Microsoft GEM, Patrick Luby, director and general manager for employment consultants Clarendon Parker, and Nadeem Younis, country general manager of New Horizons, the multi-national training organisation.
||**||Identifying the problem|~||~||~|Identifying the problem is a matter of perspective. IT companies complain that they cannot readily find staff, yet training companies and recruitment agencies say they cannot get staff out of the door fast enough. It all depends on who you are. “If you are looking at new technology, finding people is difficult. By new technologies, I am talking about things like the wireless Internet … and some object-orientated programming. If you want to get the traditional skill-set, I don’t think it is too bad,” says Zeineldin.

The panel was unanimous however that technical skill-sets are a fraction of what is necessary. “We know that the only thing that is going to stay is change. So it doesn’t really matter how much he knows today—what matters is the ability to learn, and learn quickly, and then apply that knowledge. So we don’t stick much to [a prospective employee’s] current knowledgebase,” says Zeineldin.

“It is not the people at the top of the ladder [who are hardest to find], it is the ones who are one down, two down. They must have certain parts of technologies, but they also have to be multipurpose in that they need as well as their technical skill sets, to sell to customers, encourage team members to deliver the promises they have made, and follow it through and the nitty gritty of documentation, paperwork, contracts, those are the people that are really hard to find from our perspective,” Clarendon Parker’s Luby says.

That however, was not a perspective shared by New Horizons’ Younis. “From our perspective the more responsible [an employee] is in terms of decision making, for the team leader, for the customer support engineer, for the software developer, and even for the account manager, the more difficult it is to find people.
||**||Unsolicited CVs|~||~||~|To complicate the matter further, ASPGulf’s Lovelace spoke of the lack of potential hires with the right experience, despite getting 20 to 30 unsolicited CVs every day. The ASP space, he says, is exciting, and attractive to a lot of technical people. But the experience required to fullfil a useful role within ASPGulf is scarce.

“I am looking for network engineers, system engineers and so on, who have large system experience—with managing 50 plus servers. There are hundreds out there who are doing three to five servers. But those intangible skills you pick up by interacting with other people in other jobs, you know, doing Oracle, doing Unix, and bringing that together in a system management role, you can only get that with five years [or more] experience,” he says.

At the same time, employers are equally as interested in personal skills and abilities as they are technical ones. Largely, according to Younis and Zeineldin, the technical skills in place are only useful in that they demonstrate an ability to learn. Fitting in with an existing team is almost more critical.

“In our experience, a lot of people emphasise on the technical skills, which are important. But what we have done in our recruitment, [is to pay] 75% of our attention to the character of the person and 25% to the skills. The result being, probably as a result of that, is that we have a very high retention rate,” says Younis.
||**||Job hopping|~||~||~|“I think a lot of recruitment agencies fall into the trap of writing the CV in a very traditional and classical way, which is the person’s past experience in technology areas and so forth, and I think what matters more is the character. So I think if the agencies spend more time defining the way they interview and classify the people so that we can say we want somebody with one, two, three, four, in terms of the other skill sets and who has some technology skills in [a certain] area too, then that would be a lot easier,” says Zeineldin.

According to Clarendon Parker’s Luby, that is a methodology increasingly in use at recruitment consultants today. “That is a tool that is quite rare in this area: proper psychological assessments of people. As professional interviewers, obviously we try to match a personality against a company’s philosophy and the requirement for this type of personality,” he says.

And the rule seems to be that the job market today is a lot more strict in more ways than just these. Forget about bouncing around. The days when you could move from job to job are over. Today, that makes you a pariah. “I would be hesitant to hire any guy that has bounced around. Most of us aren’t that desperate, let me tell you,” says Lovelace.

Still, the aspect of the employment game which leaves the worst taste in the mouths of channel partners, according to Seven Seas’ Hamza, isn’t the actions of a few fickle employees. It is the act of using the channel as a poaching ground on the part of the vendor partners he is expecting to be able to trust. This issue is an old one, but according to Hamza, it isn’t one that is getting any better.

“I think it is important to have movement within the industry, it is good for everybody. But some companies have no ethics whatsoever and it is the smaller start-ups in particular that come into the market and want to get things moving very quickly, [that are the worst],” he says.
||**||Stealing from the channel|~||~||~|The worst perhaps, but not the only culprits by a long way. Hamza says that he has lost 17 people to his ten vendor partners in recent years, a figure which surprised Microsoft’s Zeineldin.

Vendors that look upon the channel as a source of skilled staff are taking the easiest route—they are going to where the biggest pool of people is, and taking the best. But though vendors such as Microsoft may see little threat to the channel in offering jobs to what Zeineldin describes as one or two people who were looking to move anyway, the reality for a partner such as Seven Seas is that the numbers begin to add up. Ten partners doing the same thing has led to a serious drain on Seven Seas resources, Hamza argues.

Whilst it is apparent that no longer are jobs being filled with people with just pure technical expertise—personal skills and abilities are being taken in to account—there is no immediate solution to dealing with the skills shortage in the IT sector. The problem is however, being focused on with more forethought and clarity than ever before.||**||

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