Testing the New IT Job Pool

More résumés, but how qualified?

Swim OK LLC, with a whopping four employees, is small fry. But the Web design company made a surprisingly big splash early last month when it put out an ad seeking to hire a programmer skilled in using Macromedia Inc.s Flash 5 design tools. The company was flooded with 173 résumés, many of them from would-be defectors from mega-company land. Were talking about nibbles coming in from current or previous employees of giants such as Sun Microsystems Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co., MTV Networks Nickelodeon, Columbia TriStar Films and Qualcomm Inc.

"I had so many people calling, it was overwhelming for a few days," said Jimmy Chan, creative director at the San Diego company. "I wouldnt even answer the phone." And it wasnt just overwhelming—it was sad. "One guy said, Hey, you got Flash work? I have five programmers here eager for work. [The calls got to be] desperate."

Was Chans experience—coupled with estimates that 35,000 dot-com workers lost their jobs between January and March—proof positive that the IT skills shortage has begun to vanish, along with the endless bull market?

Maybe. Maybe not.

At the same time that employers and Web job sites are being flooded with IT résumés and H1-B visas are going begging, experts and trade groups continue to say hundreds of thousands of IT jobs are waiting to be filled. At least, thats whats claimed by organizations such as the Information Technology Association of America trade group, of Arlington, Va., and market research company Meta Group Inc., of Stamford, Conn. Economic slowdown or not, the ITAAs April report, "When Can You Start: Building Better Information Technology Skills and Careers," cites a shortfall of 425,000 IT jobs that it said will go unfilled this year. Meta Groups 2001 IT Staffing and Compensation Guide pegs the figure at 600,000.

So what is it, feast or famine for IT hiring managers? The truth of the matter, experts say, is far more complex than blaring tabloid headlines would suggest. While the economic slowdown and dot-com demise have increased the overall supply of IT workers somewhat, shortages of key skills—particularly those most sought by enterprises—remain as pronounced as ever. There are several reasons for that: One, experts say, is that many dot-com refugees simply dont have the skills for which enterprise IT hungers; another is that many enterprises have become more picky about the people—and skill sets—theyll bring on board; and a third is that dot-com layoffs have been concentrated in a few geographic areas.

The bottom line? IT organizations cant afford to slack off on the recruitment strategies theyve developed over the last couple of years. In addition, experts say, theyve got to resist the urge to slash training budgets that often comes with shrinking revenues. Instead, they should focus on training the workers theyve got, not only to fill skills gaps but also to retain those workers. Theyve also got to face the facts: Theyll need to do some training of new hires, rather than sit around waiting for Mr. or Ms. Perfect to walk through the door.

Drop in the bucket

Even if every dot-com disappeared, experts say, it wouldnt do a whole lot to alleviate the IT skills shortage.

"Theres been an overwhelming tendency to jump on the it was a dot-com thing bandwagon," said Maria Schafer, an analyst at Meta Group. "[But] dot-coms represent less than 1 percent of the entire IT work force, which is 13 million."

And even in areas where dot-com layoffs have increased the labor pool somewhat, those increases have more than been offset by increasing selectivity by hiring managers, experts say.

"There are more people in the pool, but while IT managers are hiring more judiciously than they did this time last year, demand is still high for very skilled talent," said Katherine Spencer Lee, a consultant with IT recruitment company RHI Consulting, in Menlo Park, Calif.

More and more, those hiring managers are after specific skills—not just anything that fits underneath the umbrella term "IT." According to hiring managers, the skills they still hunger for include networking, customer relationship management, ERP (enterprise resource planning), security and e-commerce/Internet skills such as database management and server administration.

This is old news. Enterprises have been hungry for those skills since e-business first appeared on the scene. But, as pointed out by Norman Matloff, a professor of computer science at the University of California, Davis, in an article contributed to eWeek, its not just, say, ERP expertise theyre after nowadays. Now, its ERP with extras.

Thats the case at Pamplin Communications Corp., a 350-employee entertainment and media company in Portland, Ore. According to Pamplins IT director, Chris Trappe, the company has been trying since September to fill an opening for a J.D. Edwards & Co. ERP expert with business analysis skills and the ability to trouble-shoot a large-scale ERP system.

The hire is an important part of a new e-business push at Pamplin that will include business-to-consumer Web sites, business-to-business systems, electronic data interchange and some sophisticated cost analysis work. In the absence of the full-time ERP expert she needs, Trappe is proceeding with the help of contractors.

Trappe isnt surprised by how long its taking to find the expertise to help launch that project smorgasbord. The person Pamplin seeks is extremely rarified—one who needs to understand sales and distribution, what the processes are that make them tick, and report generation and analysis. Unfortunately, that type of skill set doesnt generally walk out of the debris of a dot-com.

"I didnt expect much of a change, even with the downturn," Trappe said. "With the exception of the demise of e-businesses, the infrastructure wasnt failing. It was the dot-coms that were failing, so the need for infrastructure people is still going to be there."

Luckily, Trappe is willing to train a candidate in some aspects of the job. "Were not going to find somebody with J.D. Edwards skills," she said. "Were looking for a skill set of somebody whos had some type of ERP experience. They need a great deal of both programming and reporting skills as well as the business application side. We keep a person here two months to play with the system in a test environment. Once they get the interface down, we send them to [J.D. Edwards] school."

Depth of experience

None of this is to say that all dot- com refugees are chopped liver. Richard Lamb is one of the escapees with enough of those hard-to-find IT skills to get him five or six job leads in the first week after he left a dot-com—small-business portal Workz.com, which subsequently filed for Chapter 11. After leaving as IT manager for Workz.com in early January, he wound up accepting a position as systems administrator for The Boeing Co., in Seattle, later that month.

The fact that his phone started ringing the day after his résumé went up on job site Dice.com had everything to do with the depth of experience Lamb had working with Web servers and databases. "Im not someone who just acquired his MCSE [Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer certificate]," Lamb said. "Im someone with hard-core, hands-on, down-in-the-trenches experience. What garnered the attention of the folks at Boeing was the fact that I have significant experience with [Web servers and databases such as Microsoft Corp.s Internet Information Server 4.0 and 5.0 and SQL Server 7]."

But professionals like Lamb dont represent the bulk of dot-com refugees. The truth is, experts say, not only are they paltry in number, theyre also thin on skills—at least the kind enterprise IT is after. "The layoffs happened pretty much to young people with limited skills," said Bob Senatore, a recruiter with Comforce Information Technologies, a division of Comforce Corp., based in Woodbury, N.Y.

So if the demand for hard-to-find IT skills is as intense as ever, why are H1-B visas going begging? Immigration officials have said applications for the visas, which can be used to hire offshore technology professionals, have plummeted to 16,000 in February from 30,000 in January and 53,000 in December. Pick up practically any IT magazine: Youll find an article about a foreigner on an H1-B visa whos lost his or her job and glumly faces the prospect of being forced to go back home.

There again, the problem may be one of mismatched skills. Unfortunately, experts say, many H1-B visa holders working in IT were employed in the services sector and had skills that pertained only to that area—that is, consulting, systems integration and so forth. According to Meta Group, the economic downturn has decimated that sector, with about 50 percent of IT service providers having shut down or been acquired. That amounts to a lot of skills on the market with no place to go.

The result is a lot more résumés on the street—and a perception that the skills shortage is less acute —but, in fact, no increase in the availability of quality candidates.

"This year, people are sending more résumés, and, surprisingly, [Im not getting] as much high-end people sending," Swim OKs Chan said. "Half of them were already holding full-time jobs, and they were just fishing around."

Why are they dangling their lines in the water? Concerns over job security. "People [have gotten] laid off for Web/IT work," Chan said. "[Theyre sending résumés] because people are thinking about job security."

Lowering expectations

Not all companies looking to hire are seeing a flood of résumés. Consider Virtu Inc., an Internet marketing company in Philadelphia that employs 15 people, five of the positions being technical. If Virtu Chairman Joseph Barone gets the go-ahead on one of a few proposals hes now floating with clients, the company will need to hire two or three designers and programmers to do front-end work on Web sites. The new hires will have to know how to program with Flash, Director, Common Gateway Interface, HTML and Extensible Markup Language; how to use layout programs such as Quark Inc.s QuarkXPress and Adobe Systems Inc. software; and how to work with dynamic content packages such as those from Vignette Corp.

Thats a somewhat longer laundry list than Swim OKs Flash 5 programmer listing, but what with Swim OK being a small company and needing Web programming and design skills, its in the same ballpark. So does Barone expect to get flooded with 173 résumés, as did Swim OK? No.

"Im not seeing a lot of résumés," Barone said. "I expected that with the [economic] downturn, theyd be flying in over the transit, but theyre not."

What accounts for the two companies different experiences? Job Web site selection may be one explanation. Swim OK posts job openings on Guru.com, a fairly well-known site with a broad geographical reach, whereas Virtu used its own Web site and ePhiladelphia.com, a site dedicated to making Philadelphia a tech center, which obviously has a more limited geographical reach.

There may be another geography-related reason as well. Namely, as Barone pointed out, a city like Philadelphia is dominated by established brick-and-mortar companies that havent been hit by the dot-com downturn.

Not only were Philadelphia-based companies such as Cigna Corp. spared the dot-com fate, but theyre also the ones getting to e-business late in the game—and staffing up for it right about now.

The lesson here is clear: If you set up shop near successful, large companies, youll compete with them for high-end IT skills. "Its why I dont think theres a lot of tech people on the street in Philadelphia," Barone mused.

Despite the stubborn IT skills shortage, some enterprises are succeeding in filling positions by resisting the temptation to be too picky. Such is the situation at Oregon Health Sciences University, the largest employer in Portland, Ore., with its 10,000 employees and 280-strong IT staff. With 10 positions open and four positions in the process of being filled, David Bingham, operations manager for desktop services, said that hes had to talk his human resources department into downgrading expectations.

"The one thing Ive seen since the downturn is that weve had to work with HR to more accurately position ourselves in the newspaper," he said. "They were looking for MCSEs and CNAs [Certified NetWare Administrators] to do desktop technician work. They were overreaching a bit."

Binghams attitude toward training may have a lot to do with his ease in hiring. "Honestly, Ive never had a hard time finding high-quality people," he said. "Partly because Im more driven by character than technical qualifications. You can get away with some of that in this business. Id rather have somebody who can play nice and learn aggressively how to build a machine from the ground up."

And even hiring managers looking for people with very high-end skills said lowering expectations and being willing to train new hires pays off.

Steve Arndt, CIO of Assisted Living Concepts Inc., also in Portland, has been looking for a network/Windows NT/applications project worker who can help with a Windows 2000 migration, an implementation of portal software for an intranet and creation of add-ons for wireless e-mail access service.

The ideal candidate will be able to support an 802.11 wireless hub in the companys facilities, which are set up to provide assisted living for seniors.

That laundry list could place Arndt squarely in "purple squirrel" land—the IT recruiting industrys term for the impossible-to-find candidate. However, hes already been burned by a hyperselective approach to hiring a ColdFusion programmer/database administrator/Crystal programmer, who took months to find. Hes not going to make that mistake again.

"To me, the more narrow the skill set, the more quirky the individual," Arndt said. "It seems better to find somebody who has the interests and the broader skills whos willing to focus in on [more specific areas]."

What does it all add up to? The bottom line is, there are multiple IT skills markets, not just one. Enterprises place themselves in a more or less difficult hiring scenario depending on the level of skills theyre after and on IT hiring managers willingness to train and to gamble on hiring a not-quite-purple squirrel. That advice comes in handy whether an enterprise is scouring the earth for candidates or whether, like Swim OK, its drowning in them.

And whom did Swim OKs Chan end up hiring? An off-site, 15-year-old boy from Phoenix, for $20 an hour.

And why did he pick this particular job candidate, whose claim to programming fame consisted of pro bono Web design work for his high school? Because he had that one thing smart hiring managers love: a good attitude.

"I wasnt looking for experience, but for how much somebody wants to learn and experience and try," Chan said.