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3/20/2012
01:54 PM
Rob Preston
Rob Preston
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Tech Talent Shortage, Or Busted Moral Compass?

Readers weigh in on training, internships, partnerships, and 'cut-and-paste robotic HR people.'



In response to my recent column challenging employers to step up to (and stop whining about) the IT "skills shortage," I received thoughtful letters from current and former IT pros, consultants, integrators, academics, and vendor executives. What follows are their perspectives from the front lines. In short: They're not happy with what they see.

Several readers exhorted employers to engage with local high schools, technical schools, junior colleges, and universities to help refine their technical curricula as well as create internships and other work programs.

Mel Whiteside, director of engineering technology at Wichita State University, says community and technical colleges, in general, "love partnering with industry and providing low-cost, high-skilled training, whether it is in IT or other technical fields. This is one of the reasons they exist." Whiteside previously taught engineering design and AutoCAD for eight years at a community college outside of Wichita.

What frustrates him, he says, is that local tech employers would rather "whine and complain about skills shortages" than make the time and resource commitment to partnering with and advising local schools. "Business and industry must--yes, must--connect with and take advantage of their regional, taxpayer-supported community and technical colleges (and in some cases local universities) to attain the type of skilled worker they need," Whiteside says.

One positive example is INTER Alliance, a partnership set up in 2006 between Cincinnati-area employers and educators. INTER Alliance aims to "create a renowned, thriving, and sustainable pool of IT talent" in the region that "not only fulfills local demand, but also is strong enough to actually attract new employers."

[ Managing younger IT workers? Keep these tips in mind for a happier, more productive workplace: 4 Rules For Managing Millenials In IT. ]

Member organizations, including Procter & Gamble, Kroger, Toyota, Microsoft, and Chiquita, work with local high schools and universities on IT courses, mentoring programs, career camps, Olympics-style competitions, paid internships, and work co-ops. One of the many benefits of INTER Alliance, says reader Andrew Young, a Kroger business analyst who brought the program to my attention, is that it helps students "see that even grocery companies like Kroger rely heavily on technology."

If your local CIO group isn't involved with such a program, it needs to start one--and start publicizing it. One reader who works at a community college didn't know where to begin looking for industry partners. For starters, I pointed him toward his local Chamber of Commerce and the national Society for Information Management (which has many local chapters).

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Jim Downs, CEO of Chicago-based Connamara Systems, which develops custom applications for the financial trading industry, says his company typically hires candidates with undergraduate computer science or computer engineering degrees and two to four years of experience. But for less-rigorous programming jobs, he recommends that companies bring in bright high school grads who might not be interested in attending a four-year college, pay them a living wage, and train them as part of an apprenticeship program.

"Maybe this training program is only 18 months with real on-the-job experiences," he says. "At the end of the program, a job would be waiting. Hopefully, the best of the class can start contributing value to the company during the training program."

Downs says Connamara, which now has two openings for software engineers, "isn't quite large enough to take on such an effort, but we have started internal training programs to re-tool employees to help fill our shortages."



Another industry executive I heard from, the CEO of a Texas-based systems integrator, blames "cut-and-paste, robotic HR people" for corporate America's seeming inability to fill open tech positions with qualified people. Staffing companies, he says, depend too much on resume certs references rather than an understanding of what the job requires. "Experienced American citizens abound to fill jobs here or on foreign soils if senior technical management makes the time and accepts responsibility for properly interviewing job applicants personally prior to getting HR involved when hiring technology-skilled professionals," he says.

A reader who describes himself as "someone who has sat on many sides of the IT hiring and management desk" observes that companies looking to hire after the deep recession are seeking experienced business technology pros who can drive and manage IT projects in highly matrixed work environments. "These positions require people who have the ability to work effectively with internal and outsourced IT, the business side of the house, and are fully security-, audit-, and compliance-aware--especially as new cloud initiatives are deployed," he says. The problem is that the recession and "mass outsourcing" have driven many of the people who meet those criteria out of the IT profession, he says. "The smarter and more fortunate ones ended up in the consulting world, where they found higher salaries and much more flexible work environments, and they don't want to go back," he says.

Another reader, who just concluded a four-year job search, suggests that instead of having governments pour money into programs that train students or unemployed professionals "to do a job that polled well when our politicians funded it" (he cites green jobs as an example), we instead use that money to relocate skilled workers to where the openings are for their skill sets. (I assume that money would come in the form of tightly controlled employer subsidies rather than putting the federal government in the worker relocation business.)

The principal of a consulting firm in Georgia is looking to the pool of experienced mid-level professionals displaced by the recession. Another place to look is among the tens of thousands of returning military men and women. The National Guard, in association with three non-profits, has launched a national campaign to encourage small and midsize companies to post openings for skilled technical workers and a range of other positions on the National Guard's job bank. The program aims to serve not only unemployed National Guard veterans, but also those from other military branches as well as their spouses. Companies that want to post open jobs can do so here, free of charge.

Is Far Really Better? My father used to have an expression--"far is better"--which was his backhanded critique of people who thought they had to trek many miles to their favorite bakery, tailor, or some other proprietor when one just as good or even better was around the corner. We see the same phenomenon in IT circles.



One retired IT pro wrote me to relate the time he was assigned to supervise a few H-1B workers under contract at low hourly rates to deploy an ERP system. His manager brought the H-1B workers in--though none of them were qualified, he says--as an alternative to hiring or training staffers or contracting with a reputable local firm that bid a flat rate.

"The resulting programs didn't work properly, and some were never deployed," the former supervisor says. "The reputable firm was ultimately hired to do the projects (at the proposed flat rates), and a local consulting programmer was hired as an employee. The 'manager' responsible for this fiasco is still in charge and still resisting training for in-house staff." The mentality: Far is better.

A 61-year-old self-employed Oracle/JDE consultant and 40-year IT veteran wrote me to say he has been "watching this 'shortage' develop over the past 15 years" and is "constantly amazed at how shortsighted much of corporate America has become--'hit the ground running' and all the other euphemisms those corporate cheapskates have applied to acquiring temp and full-time labor." He relates how, back in the day, his uncle, a manager at a local GE factory, would discuss with him management's obligation to provide a productive work environment and advancement opportunities (including on-the-job training and outside classes) for those so motivated.

"Not anymore. The moral compass is busted," he says. The bottom line is all that matters. Hire only those persons who already have the skill(s) you need today; lay off the rest. No formal retraining, very little OJT--just too expensive."

If importing technical expertise or moving jobs offshore serves a company's best interests, then it should indeed move in those directions. I'm not here to indict an entire set of business practices. But more companies do need to look past their next couple of financial quarters.

While big American technology companies seek to import workers on green cards or temporary visas, some of their counterparts overseas are more inclined to plow some of their profits back into their workforces. Take Infosys, one of the world's most successful IT services vendors. Even with a population of 1.1 billion in its home country of India, it still faces shortages of key technical skills. So it's not only moving some of that work to its centers outside India (including partnering with Detroit's Wayne County Community College District to train software developers), but it also trains more than 14,000 people at a time at its 337-acre Global Education Centre in Mysore, India, the largest such corporate center in the world. Subject areas include consulting, software package implementation, systems integration, infrastructure management, and business process management.

"My challenge and advice to corporate America is to free up some of the billions on those balance sheets and provide some internal training to our own citizens," the 40-year IT veteran says. "Don't just sit on some TSC board (although that's certainly helpful), but actually set up some internal training programs for current staff. You just might be amazed at the outcome--higher loyalty, more productivity, probably less turnover.

"Yes, it might hurt the bottom line a teensy weensy little bit in the short run. But in the medium to long run, America becomes much more productive. And when Americans have jobs, they spend, in turn supporting and boosting the economy."

Nominate your company for the 2012 InformationWeek 500--our 24th annual ranking of the nation's very best business technology innovators. Deadline is April 27. Organizations with $250 million or more in revenue may apply for the 2012 InformationWeek 500 now.

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