No Talent: Solution Providers Despair Over Job Seekers

By Deb Perelman  |  Posted 2007-07-25

No Talent: Solution Providers Despair Over Job Seekers


No Talent

: Solution Providers Despair Over Job Seekers"> Ask a channel executive if its hard to get good help these days and get ready for an earful.

Just when the need for qualified IT technicians is greater than ever, the talent pool is thinnest, according to channel employers and analysts. Observers attributed this to a number of reasons, including a hangover from the dot-com bust of a few years ago and the spate of layoffs it caused, a mismatch between the actual skills of applicants and job qualifications, double-digit drops in college enrollments for computer science majors and the inability of channel companies to attract recruits who would rather work for IT vendors with recognizable names.

"After the dot-com boom, parents told their kids, I dont want you going into technology, and they havent changed their message since," said Larry Kesslin, president of 4-Profit, a channel advisory company in Riverdale, N.Y. "I think its the biggest issue channel partners are going to face over the next five years."

Although some people dismissed the IT industrys laments about a shortage of skilled labor, by far most of those interviewed by eWeek Strategic Partner said the dearth is a big problem that has touched them. Channel executives complained that even though they often get plenty of applicants for advertised positions, job seekers typically lack the requisite skills and often have unrealistic expectations about compensation and job responsibilities.

"We continue to get very good response to ads that we place in various media, but the number of people responding who we could consider for our practice is very small," said Howard Cohen, president and chief operating officer of LAN Associates Network Solutions, in Central Islip, N.Y. "We could be too demanding, but we need a cross-section of professional, personal and technical skills," said Cohen, who added that finding people with all three is difficult.

How to Tackle the IT Skill Shortage. Click here to read more.

Exacerbating the problem is that as technology in such areas as wireless and VOIP (voice over IP) becomes more affordable, it fuels demand. And while that is a positive development, it also makes the need for IT talent even more acute.

"Its really stunning to me when people say they dont believe there is a shortage because our entire world is run on IT," said Susan Underhill, vice president of global certification and partner education at Hewlett-Packard, in Palo Alto, Calif. "I understand fear of working for a computer company, but IT itself is everywhere. Everyone is using wireless and handheld devices; everyone has an Internet connection. The application of the technology is where the real opportunity is and where the shortages are going to be felt. You can only outsource or offshore so much."

Media hype surrounding the outsourcing of technology positions has over­shadowed the fact that not all work can be sent offshore, industry in­­siders said. Channel companies know this better than others because they especially need the type of hands-on IT work that cannot be sent elsewhere. An on-site customer call, for example, cannot be handled from India or the Philippines.

"We need to get the word out that there will be a huge demand for IT pros," said Neill Hopkins, vice president of skills development at the Computing Technology Industry Association, or CompTIA, in Oakbrook Terrace, Ill. "Infrastructure will not go away; computers arent going anywhere. The number of devices we have connecting to networks will only increase exponentially, including PCs and personal devices. All of these devices are going to have to be supported in one way or another."

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Quality Issue

Quality issue

Many across the channel have concluded that the problem is not a cut-and-dried shortage of IT professionals but, rather, a lack of workers with the right sets of skills.

"There is not a shortage of people, but there is certainly a shortage of good people," said Cohen. Sometimes, he added, the skills candidates lack have nothing to do with technology. Candidates often lack the personal or professional skills that a well-rounded IT channel technician needs to put the customer at ease and instill confidence that the job will be done properly. "We reject a lot of people because of this," said Cohen.

Many job seekers lack what Samuel Bright, an analyst at Forrester Research, called "the three legs of the stool"­—technical, business and personal skills. These business deficiencies are the hardest to overcome in potential hires, said employers and analysts.

Not everyone agrees there is s shortage. Click here to read more.

"Its more than twisting a tool," HPs Underhill said. "You need business acumen, and were losing this. Business acumen cant be bought or picked up overnight, and you dont exit an IT college curriculum with it."

Worse yet, those who excel in business, personal and technical skills often end up in other fields, where they believe it is safer to advance their careers.

"To succeed in this field, you need three things: logical thinking, attention to detail and problem-solving abilities," said Norman Matloff, computer science professor at the University of California at Davis. "These traits are also important to becoming a lawyer, except when you are a lawyer you can start as high as $160,000 per year, rather than $80,000."

Because of the shortcomings employers see in job seekers, many of them end up fishing for the same recruits in a relatively small talent pool.

"You have a broad-based fight for a narrow slate of talent, and its not just narrow because of pipeline concerns but because its a subset of a larger talent pool that doesnt meet [employers] needs," said Forresters Bright. "In the front end of the pipeline, there is a dearth of new CS graduates, a lower interest from young people in pursuing IT careers, and the aftereffects of the dot-com bust and the ensuing media hype."

Because the numbers of potential recruits coming out of technology schools have declined in recent years, IT employers are left with an aging work force, according to channel executives and analysts. Some in that work force already have their eye on retirement, while others are being wooed by recruiters.

"In the back end, CIOs have this ax hanging over their heads over the possible retirement of baby boomers who will take their knowledge of both the business and IT with them," Bright said.

Left in the middle is what Bright calls "an overfished pond," a supply so valuable that poaching is frequent and those with the coveted skill sets can name their price and, often, even their hours.

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Good on Paper

Good on paper

Many applicants look good on paper, but putting their knowledge into practice in the real world is a different story, according to channel employers.

"Many of these training companies churn out these MCSEs [Microsoft Certified Systems Engineers], but its just paper training," said Doug Ford, president of IT Pros, a San Diego-based computer and network consulting company. "They dont know what they dont know."

"I go through so many interviews—I must have had 10 in the last two months—and I sit across the table from people, and talking doesnt help, so I show them a scenario: How would you build this network? And they cant explain it to me," said Ford.

Those who are highly trained in a specific technology are also of little help to channel companies, which need well-rounded staffs.

"We find that big IT organizations are oftentimes segmented," said Ford. "You work in infrastructure, the help desk, etc. Well put a post on [job-related Web sites] Monster or Craigslist and sit down and talk to them, and theyll know only one thing very well. We need a breadth of ability; we need someone who knows Exchange, Active Directory and all those things we do on a daily basis that are difficult."

When and if these too-specialized IT professionals are hired, often they dont have enough to do. "Its very hard to have people on your staff who are extremely limited in their skills, who are too specialized," said LAN Associates Cohen. "If I have someone with too-specialized training, they sit idle a lot."

Meanwhile, those with high-end skills that VARs need the most—such as CCIE (Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert), PMP (Project Management Professional) or CISSP (Certified Information Systems Security Professional)—and who also have interpersonal and business skills are hard for channel companies to find.

Channel companies on the prowl for acquisitions Click here to read more.

"This is where the shortage is," said Jason Beal, group manager for Santa Ana, Calif., distributor Ingram Micros Services Network. "VARs are desperate to find these folks.

Theyre investing in this kind of talent and trying to hold on to it. As VARs move into higher-end work, they need these people with high-end certifications—people who can sell a product, sell a solution."

Left behind

Channel companies arent like larger, well-known technology employers, which makes it harder for them to hire in a tight IT labor market. In addition, said Celia Harper-Guerra, director of talent at Cisco Systems, in San Jose, Calif., channel partners typically dont have the size or the human resources investment to attract recruits.

Often, theyre in smaller towns, far from the coasts and the talent epicenters of Silicon Valley and the Northeast.

"We have a number of partners in remote locations, and theyre struggling to find talent," Harper-Guerra said. "They really need to think more about building talent in their own backyard."

Without the brand recognition of the big shots, VARs struggle to reach university-level recruits.

"VARs can have a hard time picking talent up right out of universities," said Ingram Micros Beal. "People in college may not know what a VAR is; they go for the big names. Once they start working in the channel, they learn what VARs are, and the jobs that they can do."

While a large technology company can afford the overhead of investing in the skills of a neophyte, this is too expensive and time-consuming for most solution providers.

"They cant afford training," Harper-Guerra said. "They cant take raw talent out of the university and train them for a year. A Microsoft can have a one-year training program to become a systems administrator or an engineer. But a small company cannot afford to have a person out of work for a year."

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To Train or Not

to Train">

Should a VAR decide to invest in training an employee to reach the next level, the damage incurred if the person then leaves hits the VAR harder than it would a large company.

In hiring the right talent, the limitations of a VARs leadership also can get in the way.

"Most solution providers dont have that leadership it factor," said 4-Profits Kesslin. "Theyre successful, they make a living, but they dont recruit as well because they dont know what talent wants. Top talent will only go work for top managers; a B manager can only hire C, C+ talent."

Running a small company means that a leader is required to be the business mind, the head tech and the HR department. Typical VARs are entrepreneurially and technically minded but lack business and personnel reach.

"The business owner of a small VAR is often an engineer that grew up in a small VAR and then decided to start their own business," said Gartner analyst Tiffani Bova.

More than a paycheck

In any employment discussion, compensation naturally becomes an important topic. Bright said IT executives often express concern about affording the salaries job hunters want. But focusing on salaries, he argued, misses the point because many employers overlook the importance of culture while theyre worrying about salary alignment.

"Cultural fit plays a large role but in rarely seen ways," Bright said. "IT organizations that understand why people work at their organizations and are able to communicate this [to job candidates] are going to win from a talent standpoint."

Sure, salary can make a difference, Bright added. "But in the margins, other factors become important," he said. "If you only pick people for pay, youll get people who stay for six to nine months and leave because its not a good fit. Pay has been put on a pedestal."

Some solution providers go as far as using salaries as a weeding-out method.

"Were in Southern California, and everyone says they want $70,000, but weve been using that number to weed out what we dont need," said IT Pros Ford. "Someone who wants to work for $60,000 knows what they dont know. Everyone Ive tried hiring at $70,000 didnt work out. They thought they were more high-level than the work was. They didnt want to touch the desktops. When youre with a company like ours, you need to do all of this stuff—installing system routers, rebuilding desktops. We found that the people who would work for $60,000 didnt think they were too advanced for this."

CompTIAs Hopkins also cautioned about focusing too much on salaries. Instead, he said, employers should put more effort into worker retention by keeping them happy.

"If youre happy where you are working, would you leave for a 10 percent raise? No," Hopkins said. "If you werent happy, would you leave for 5 percent? Yes—and to a company that looks after their workers better than you do and gives them a robust suite of benefits."

In addition to retention, many small channel employers find it helpful to interview constantly. That way, even if they dont have a vacancy at the time of interviewing, they can build up a roster of potential future employees.

"Run the numbers for yourself," said 4-Profits Kesslin. "If one out of 20 interviewees is worth hiring, and you want to hire two salespeople a year, youre going to need to interview 40 people a year, almost one per week. But theyre not doing that.

"Theyre recruiting from a pool of one," Kesslin continued. "They find a candidate, decide they like them and hire them, and then theyre not happy with what they have but say its too hard to fire them. They say that the pain of what I know is better than the pain of what I dont have. "

Channel companies can improve their chances of finding the right professional by spending time at universities, conferences and other places where the bigger companies recruit, Kesslin said.

Though the consensus is that the IT labor market is tight, there is no shortage of IT professionals who simply dont buy it. If the market is so great for job seekers, they questioned, why does it take them so long to find work? Why doesnt this so-called shortage mesh with their personal, day-to-day experiences?

"Most everybody I have met in this field is having trouble getting hired," said Michael Tock, a Cisco-certified technician in Melrose Park, Ill. "They come from different schools, are in different areas of the computer field and are of all ages." After graduating from college with a degree in computer studies, Tock said he spent more than two years looking for work until he found a $12-per-hour job at a Cisco lab in a community college (see story, Page 10).

But Tock and others with similar experiences find little sympathy from analysts and employers, who said job seekers need to look at their résumés, skill sets and salary expectations and consider whether they match what employers need.

Cohen of LAN Associates urged IT professionals to look at themselves and the roles they intend to play in companies. "Anyone who is not getting hired needs to understand that we cant afford to settle," Cohen said.

The long view

Despite their talent-finding troubles, Cohen and others said they believe the problem is solvable. Although there is a skills shortage, they said, the situation has been bleaker in the past. And it will get better if IT professionals realize they must keep their skills current by earning A+, MCSE and other certifications to boost their chances of landing well-paying, career-building jobs.

"There is still a community of extraordinarily capable professionals who absolutely deserve the high salaries, but, on the other hand, there are a lot of rank beginners and people who are not keeping their skills current that are pricing themselves out of the market," Cohen said.

Check out eWEEK.coms Careers Center for the latest news, analysis and commentary on careers for IT professionals.

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