Talent Shortage Plagues Solution Providers

The inability to find and retain technical talent looms as the single biggest problem facing solution providers in 2007.

Craig Zarley, Contributor

January 19, 2007

5 Min Read

The inability to find and retain technical talent looms as the single biggest problem facing solution providers in 2007, just as the channel is poised for a breakout growth year.

Much of what's causing the current labor shortage is a perfect storm of economic and geopolitical events coupled with the fact that many solution providers and the vendors they represent have done a poor job of marketing the channel's value to IT customers and to the general public.

Vendors, too, are feeling the pinch and are, in fact, exacerbating the channel labor shortage by hiring away top technical talent from solution providers, some solution providers say.

Hewlett-Packard and IBM, for example, rarely mention the channel in their earnings calls with analysts, and they don't spend significant advertising dollars touting solution providers as a key ingredient in the IT solution supply chain. HP, which says that solution providers generate upward of 50 percent of the company's revenue, for example, only last week launched its first ads touting the value of channel partners.

All of this has left solution providers to fend for themselves in a particularly bleak labor market.

Darrell Bowman, CEO of AppTech, a Tacoma, Wash.-based solution provider, said a fallout from the dot-com days as well as the myth that most high-tech jobs are being outsourced abroad are contributing to the dearth of technical talent.

"That the supply of technical talent is so low is a direct result of the dot-com bust," Bowman said. "People are shying away from technology."

Bowman also said continuing press coverage of outsourcing tech jobs to places such as India and China is resulting in a decrease in the number of students entering college computer science programs, even though, when it comes to channel jobs, concerns about outsourcing are unfounded.

"You can't outsource something that has to be touched," he said.

Bowman said finding technical talent is his No. 1 business problem and has reached the stage where it could seriously impact his ability to grow in the months to come.

"We are starting to get some really good opportunities put in front of us, and I've reached the point where I have to grow the company, and I have to hire more people to do that," he said. But the hiring process for Bowman and other solution providers can be a long, strange trip. Bowman said he's well-connected in the technology-rich Puget Sound area, but it took him a month and a half recently to hire a senior technician.

"I pay well and I interviewed people who were woefully underqualified before I found a jewel," he said. "And that was one instance and one person. It happens repeatedly."

Other solution providers, stung by the labor shortage, say offering internship programs for local high-school, technical college or university students is a great way to offer on-the-job training while developing future employees. Working with an intern gives you an opportunity to "try before you buy" without any of the baggage of hiring a full-time employee, said David Dadian, CEO of Powersolution, a Ho-Ho-Kus, N.J., solution provider.

While Dadian is working with the New Jersey Institute of Technology to offer intern programs, he's just moved his recruitment of potential interns to the local high school where he's the assistant hockey coach.

"I walked into the locker room and asked the team what they were doing this summer and if anyone wanted to work in my business. Two jumped up right away," he said. "Who knows where this is going, but there are five or six high schools five minutes away where I can do the same thing. This is something I will pursue."

He said that if he can find one or two students interested in pursuing computer science in college by gaining on-the-job experience in a real-world atmosphere he can hopefully connect with them to the point that they might work for him after graduation.

That approach has paid off for Ron Shurie, president of Micro Performance, an Annapolis, Md., solution provider. One of his best senior technicians came to work as a high-school intern when he was 14. Shurie co-signed the intern's college loans with the agreement that the intern would come to work for him for at least three years following the date of his graduation.

"When you have someone from the time they are 14, you have an opportunity to mold them," he said. "He's up to the status of senior engineer because he's learned so much being here."

Solution providers agreed that they need to work more closely with local high schools and colleges to not only promote the channel as offering a viable technical career, but as a way to help shape curricula so that the skills young people learn are relevant to the business world.

Valeh Nazemoff, director of business development at Acolyst, a solution provider in Fredericksburg, Va., agreed that working closely with local universities to provide internships is the best way to promote the channel and address the labor shortage.

"Students are used to getting free products from IBM or Apple, and once they graduate, the mentality that 'I've used IBM so I'm going to buy IBM' stays in place," Nazemoff said. "That's the mentality that we are trying to bring on board: 'I've worked with Acolyst, so I'm going to be loyal and faithful to Acolyst because they've mentored me.' "

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