I/T Unemployment Rate Low = Hiring Woes

by Peg Bogema

A recent Kiplinger Letter confirmed what many of us already suspected. The IT unemployment rate is low, low, low. The number Kiplinger tossed out is 4%. As a reminder, anything lower than 5% unemployment is considered by economy wonks to be...uh...amazing.

So here we are, with a complete 180 degree turnabout in the IT employment market. How quickly the tables have turned.

I have previously climbed up on my soap box and preached the gospel of hiring. Write clear, well-defined, realistic job descriptions. Conduct interviews rapidly. Offer competitive salaries. Improve benefit packages—especially expanding them to include training reimbursement.

If your company did any or all of these, congratulations.

If your company didn’t, well, I’m sorry to say that it may be too late. What? Yes, too late. By survey, two-thirds of firms plan to hire technology workers in the second half of this year.

Unless your company wants to wage salary wars—which in and of itself is fraught with problems—even the best hiring practices may be insufficient to attract new talent.

TIME FOR A NEW SOAP BOX

Another interesting tidbit in The Kiplinger Letter is a reminder that the IT workforce has shrunk. Enrollment in Computer Science type degree programs has not kept pace with demand.

That means that a large percentage of us are...how to be diplomatic...graying.

This creates a problem on the one hand: your company would like to hire people who are talented in the most current technologies. You are advertising for .NET personnel, JEE personnel, Ruby on Rails personnel. Take a look at the job boards. Hundreds of other companies are trying to find same. But the aging workforce isn’t trained in these technologies and/or doesn’t have the deep experience you are looking for.

On the other hand, this creates an opportunity: that aging workforce is already highly trained in many other invaluable areas. Fundamental principles in technology don’t change. Intangibles like a solid work ethic, an understanding of how to self-manage, the ability to meet deadlines, estimation skills, comprehensive testing experience and so forth are not taught—they are acquired in the professional workplace.

In a highly competitive hiring environment, companies would do well to attract and recognize good people. Period. Those people can be taught the technology-related skills a company needs. And they are often willing to accept a lower salary as their price of admission to learning new skills.

So few entry level people were hired in the last five years that there are not that many people at the junior mid-career level now. Even if your company wanted to hire in that three to five years’ experience area, that void is getting more and more apparent as the market tightens. Training a 2008 IT grad with minimal working IT experience may not be as good a hire as the grey haired techie, anyway.

A NEW APPROACH

If your job advertisements aren’t attracting the candidates you really want—or if those candidates are asking for salaries that exceed what your company can offer—you can try a new approach.

First, figure out the rock bottom skills that you need. For instance, someone who is highly skilled in C++ can learn Java or C# relatively quickly. Someone who has strong database skills in one area—say, Oracle—will be able to translate those skills into another area—SQL Server, for example. Someone who has good Web development skills in one scripting language will carry forward all of the fundamentals about the Web, with only a new scripting language to learn.

Second, figure out what industries are analogous. Someone who will do embedded systems for automotive has to know specific protocols and has to understand specific issues. Are there industries that are analogous? Maybe aerospace is. Maybe manufacturing is. Probably telecommunication is not.

Finally, figure out what intangibles you can train and which ones you cannot. If your company is requiring experience with Test Driven Development, for example, you’ll reject most applicants. Test Driven Development is relatively novel, and most applicants simply won’t have it. To open up the applicant pool, a company would have to know what type of mindset readily adapts to Test Driven Development. Recruit that kind of person and train him or her in Test Driven Development.

THE BOTTOM LINE

If a company’s workforce already knows the domain well, then it makes sense to pay to retrain the workforce in new technology.

Companies are well-advised to bring in highly skilled consulting help to lead a new development effort in a new technology. That way its existing workforce benefits from an on-the-job apprenticeship in the new technology. And the company benefits from a properly architected framework. And from correct tool selections. And from a reduction in trial and error. And probably a thousand other things.

Or companies can hire highly skilled technical leadership for a new development effort in a new technology. It is a bit of a chicken and egg problem, as the company may not have the expertise to qualify the new hires. Consultants can help with the hiring.

Ongoing hiring can and should target the best fit. However, when applicants are few or too high-priced, compromising on requirements and focusing on what is genuinely needed to guarantee success is a winning formula.

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