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Help wanted: apply within [round table]

Help wanted: apply within [round table]

Across the country, IT organisations are grappling with the skills shortage. Even the biggest companies are not immune.

MIS100 Roundatble Staff recruitment and retention For the past two years, staff recruitment and retention has emerged as a top business challenge for CIOs interviewed in the MIS100. In back-to-back roundtable discussions in Wellington and Auckland, IS leaders share their insights on ways to address the problem.

Katrina Troughton, IBM: It's not that much of a challenge to attract or look for people on a lot of the bigger roles in the new projects or the innovative areas. But when it comes to some of the bread and butter roles, that is absolutely more of a challenge.

Jon Macdonald, Trade Me: It is tough to find the right people, although we certainly have no shortage of applicants. As we grow the company aggressively, we need to be very careful not only about the experience and skills of the people we're bringing on board, but also the team fit.

We've been very conscious of the existing culture of the company and the influence other people can help wanted: apply withinAcross the country, IT organisations are grappling with the skills shortage. Even the biggest companies are not immune. For the past two years, staff recruitment and retention has emerged as a top business challenge for CIOs interviewed in the MIS100.

In back-to-back roundtable discussions in Wellington and Auckland, IS leaders share their insights on ways to address the problem.Edited by Divina ParedesabsoluteIT kindly sponsored the Wellington and Auckland roundtable discussions on staff recruitment and retention.bring. We run the risk of finding ourselves with a very different organisation.

Alan Mayo, Warehouse: We've had a fairly stable staff over the last couple of years. Fortunately, many people, rather than leaving the company, have moved internally from IS to other business units, thus Warehouse has retained their experience and skill. However, some key people have left for a lifestyle change. I think the Auckland traffic and the corporate lifestyle is no longer worth it for a number of people.

Phil Brimacombe, health Alliance: Last financial year, we had a 30 per cent turnover in our IT department. It's huge in terms of all the knowledge that walks out the door, the effort and time it takes to find a replacement and train them up, and build that knowledge again. We rely upon our IT staff to build up a really good knowledge about the business that they're supporting. With more contacts to the business, they gain more business knowledge on top of their technical knowledge in order to be able to properly apply the technology to the business.

And so, when you've gone through the effort of finally getting the right person on board and then the subsequent effort of training them up to a point where they're contributing, and finally being of value, then soon after or a little while after, they take off, you're back into the cycle again.

Tim Occleshaw, Ministry of Social Development: We do try very hard to do two things; to get people that have got the right cultural fit, so we always ask in interviews, `Why MSD, what appeals to you about MSD or the social sector. I believe that helps with our low staff turnover, because we've got people who want to be there. The second thing is trying to attract people that understand the business as well as the IT and can actually communicate to both groups.

Many of our IT people spend time in the contact centres and frontline offices. It helps us to 'connect' an IT system problem with the real business impact, so we know what that means for our frontline people and our clients. The `must have' skills.

Phil Brimacombe: As our environment becomes more and more complex and more and more diverse, we need people that have really good technical skills; and I don¿t mean just in a language or technical knowledge, but in-depth technical ability, whatever that platform is.

Even when we find someone with good technical skills, what we're finding more and more is, we need people with good interpersonal skills as well. They need to be able to relate not only to the users but to their colleagues in other teams, and to be able to think outside their little square and understand the relationships and needs of the other people they interrelate with. It is very hard to find a combination of those hard and soft skills.

Troughton, IBM: We are seeing many opportunities for people offshore that are highly competitive, and New Zealand will struggle to keep them.

There's also a kind of attitude requirement in terms of work ethic and preparedness to work in health. It's very full on all the time. We've had one or two people I can think of that we hired who've walked outwithin a day or two saying, `I'm not prepared to work this hard, I'm going to go and get a job where it's a bit easier.' ... A lot of people can handle complexity for one task or one project, but when you ask them to work in simultaneously on half a dozen complex projects, a lot of them can't handle it.

Steve Mayo-Smith, Auckland DHB: An issue we face is where the skill sets you have within your organisation actually inhibits what one can do to develop new IT platforms, or set a new direction or a strategy. People prefer to stick with what they know. So an issue is the ability to make changes in technology, because the skills available in those new emerging technologies are simply not existent on a wide enough basis.

Brian Pink, Statistics NZ: What are the base skills that people need for whatever way technology evolves? Those are really what the schooling system has got to deliver. I will argue very strongly skills in mathematics and your ability to think logically.

IT changed significantly in 30 to 40 years but a lot of the base skills haven't changed that much at all -they're applied in a different context or in a different technical environment.

When people leave

Steve Mayo-Smith: Some of them actually left IT, which is ironically quite a good thing. They go into the business areas which often allows for a better understanding of what IT can or can't do. We find it particularly useful when people come out of the business i.e. nursing, and come into IT.

Brian Pink: At the other end of your workforce, there are a lot of skilled people that have strong disciplines. You have really to think about how you treat and engage those skilled people for them to pass on the knowledge and experience perhaps in a five or six, seven-year time frame after they finished working for you full-time.

Look at opportunities to let them work with younger people ....

Keep the door open

Pat O'Connell, Carter Holt Harvey: Across the company, we've tried to encourage turnover to a certain extent - we know that people are going to leave for whatever reason, but we don't want to consider them as a loss to us. We have had quite a significant number of people who have come back to us after they've done their OE or gone off somewhere else and found that the grass on the other side of the fence wasn't necessarily as green as they thought it might be. I know of three or four people who have come back to us from other positions they've taken either here or overseas, and we always leave the door open for that.

That's great because it gets us not only the benefit of retaining over time that experience they've had, but also their experience in other organisations in other parts of the world.Tim Occleshaw: We try to be quite flexible with our people that want to gain short-term work experience elsewhere, or even take time off for personal reasons.

Recently, a senior network manager has been over in the UK. His partner had the opportunity to work over there, so we organised with him for a leave without pay arrangement.

We've kept in touch, he's actually doing contracting work with some organisations, so he's looking forward to coming back later this month. He brings back with him a great experience that we'll benefit from. Similarly, we've had people on secondment across to Australia to Centrelink. It benefits the individual, benefits us and it benefits the other organisations as well.

Katrina Troughton: A large majority of the people who've left our business are being promoted offshore within our business. That is probably one of our biggest challenges at a local level, and one of the most exciting things for our people, and of course they are even more skilled when they return. So it's like always one of those wonderful catch 22s.

Jon Macdonald: We take a very positive attitude to people who are studying. We have brought on people part-time where they've been able to continue studying, which has led in a couple of cases to people choosing to not complete their university degree but rather to come and work full-time. We had someone who chose to stop studying to join us work full time, but just recently has decided to return to university. We are keeping him on as a staff member and are ensuring that he can complete his studies as well.

Managing contractors

Martin Knoche, NZTE: The issue between permanent and contracting staff is important. With the world becoming more transient, there might be more people who are doing temporary work. Even our organisation now is more project-driven.

Brian Pink: There are a lot of people who want to operate in a contracted market, who don't want to come on board and be employees. We have a lot of things that we think are quite important to the organisation, our culture, the integrity of what we do, the security of the information we deal with, and the integration of the work with the other parts of the business.

A lot of contractors, all they want to do is come in and do whatever the job is that's defined for them and move onto the next contract.. I ran the IT side of the Australian Bureau of Statistics, it wasn't the same contracted market in Canberra that there is in Wellington. It's an interesting phenomenon.

Tim Occleshaw: In areas like testing services, where it's more of a commodity type market, we have to get contractors in more often. At the moment, they sometimes want a premium, which we aren't always prepared to pay. In terms of our balance against full- timers versus contractors, that, I think is very good, probably even a bit low.

We're at about 8 per cent contractors, and I would be comfortable with up to around double that figure. It's certainly been helpful for us to have some leading edge systems to attract good quality technical people.

Warrick Laing, ACC: We have few IT people in ACC. We have a small group of architects, a program management office of about 50 staff, an IT services team of 25 staff and outsource to a large extent. For example, the program management office has got about 250 people working for it at the moment. We take a lot of contractors to meet our project needs.

Certainly, there's a recognition of government's responsibilities to maintain intellectual capital and the need to manage your strategy and retain the people capital. That is why what we're doing at the moment is considering reverting from an extensive outsource position in one area of activity.

Cost-effective retention strategies

Peter Jameson, Redeal: Depending on the individuals, you need a whole range of things to keep people happy. Some of them are very soft and very non-financial. You can do an awful lot with food, you can do an awful lot with just the way you treat people. And if they feel that what they're doing is valued, then that goes a long way to keeping them as a valued part of the team.

Some people are very motivated by money, so project performance related is the way to assess them. Certainly, things like recognition are very important to people who feel that they're doing something that's important for the organisation. An awful lot of people in IT feel that what they do isn't appreciated because all you ever hear from the users is the abuse when things go wrong, rather than the plaudits when things go well.

Phil Brimacombe: We try to be family friendly. We have a lot of female staff with children, so we try and be flexible around their needs to drop children off at school, and pick them up again.

We try and put facilities in place so that those people can work from home some of the time. If you've got some really interesting and challenging technology for the technicians, that is an attraction.

Another one is training. We publish a training plan each year and say if they pass exams for technical qualifications, we'll pay their exam fees. The other thing we try and do is open up other opportunities. So the first guy we hired as a trainer is now a team leader of our server team. In a cash-strapped environment like we're in, those are the kind of things you have to work really hard at attracting and retaining people.

Pat O'Connell: Recently, we had to squeeze a number of people into a fairly small area on one floor of our building. I thought they weren¿t going to like it and now it's the most enthusiastic and interesting part of our whole business. It's like a nerve centre, it's really enthusiastic, and it's humming. We¿ve noticed that people are really warming to this environment, so we're going to fit everyone into a really small building! It's not just the money, it's the enthusiasm for what they're doing, the interest, and the recognition. Keep them in the loop

Phil Brimacombe: We had an internal seminar years ago which I¿ve never forgotten. We were trying to get the staff to buy into having a more `customer service attitude'. Halfway through the seminar, one of the staff said, `Well, you're telling us to communicate more to the users, but you don't even tell us what's going on, so why don't you start by communicating more with us?

It was a real lesson for me. So one of the things we did since then was to have a monthly IS department meeting where we try very hard to let the staff know what's going on. First of all in the IS department, secondly in the business and thirdly from a big picture point of view. If the staff feel they've been kept in the dark and are not feeling valued, they start to lose interest and then suddenly you've lost them.

It's sometimes just people in our position walking around and talking to the staff and taking just a few minutes interest in what they're doing.

Peter Jameson: We source and distribute mainly electrical products, and there is nothing particularly attractive about that, so you have to go about attracting staff by other means you need to understand what is important to them as individuals and match that to business benefits and outcomes; make them aware of the endgame, keep them well informed and educated, and show them how what they're doing is actually adding value to the business.

Pat O'Connell: We try and keep as best we can reasonably to the forefront of technology, both applications and infrastructure technology for a couple of reasons. One is that it makes good sense to do so because we can do some better things on some of the newer technologies, and keep our costs down by investing.

Secondly it also keeps people's interests up. We find they don't feel quite so compelled to go off and seek their fortune elsewhere.

Gen-Y in the workplace

Katrina Troughton: Statistics out of Australia suggest Gen Y will have 23 to 25 jobs in their lifetime and work for themselves seven to 10 times. I think they just have a different meaning for the word loyalty. It is not right or wrong, it is just different. One of the best things about some of our younger employees is the amazing commitment and interest they have in their community and community groups.

Brian Pink: A real problem for an organisation like mine where everything you do has to be pretty disciplined, is that a lot of the kids are coming out of the universities and they've built their own websites. They make changes at the drop of a hat. But when you start talking about rigorous management processes and disciplines, it's very foreign to them, it's not what they're taught.

They don't seem to get the same training because I think probably a lot of people that are teaching them now haven¿t actually grown up in that environment. It is that sort of instant fix mentality, `Try this and see how it goes.' It can destroy your network.

Tim Occleshaw: There's a lot of really exciting sexy stuff that goes on in IT these days. You know, sometimes I think my six-year-old son knows more about some aspects of IT than I do, like getting the webcam to work with the PlayStation.

A problem with today's technology can be that you just don't have the necessary disciplines (e.g. change management controls), they all want to do the quick fixes. Some of the younger IT people only want to work with the leading edge sexier stuff.

Warwick Wright, State Services Commission: For years, I've always solved the problem by trying to get to the root cause, by the process of the logic of elimination¿ and now the answer is to put a patch on. There is no understanding of why this thing doesn't work. Now it is `let us just try another patch and hope it doesn't create some other problem.'

Grant Burley, absoluteIT: A company¿s brand perception becomes a significant issue. What kind of projects they¿ll get involved in and does it meet their needs and personal beliefs? Graduates will spend time `checking you out'. Therefore, employers should be prepared for interested parties looking at your website and assessing your business all with a view to potentially wanting to work for you provided you measure up against other companies. In their mind, you're the one on interview.

Katrina Troughton: Around Gen-Y, there are absolutely quite different views around what's important. You get interviewed as a company, you don't interview people anymore. Education, education, educationBrian Pink: We have to have teachers who have the passion, the knowledge, and the skills to teach, and to enthuse the children to move into the secondary schooling and continuing in the maths and sciences. I don't think there are enough kids coming through that are being fired up to go into maths and sciences.

Katrina Troughton: In the US, we've got a large program around people retiring and us helping them into a new career in teaching particularly in science and maths. That's something we're starting to look at across ANZ.

When looking offshore is the answer

Grant Burley: About 30 per cent of all candidates absolute IT places are from the overseas market, which include expats returning. There's certainly a high degree of rising interest in New Zealand for new immigrants and returning expats.

Martin Knoche: Recently, we invited a recruitment agency and the Department of Labour to promote New Zealand as a place to work in technology companies in an exhibition in Germany. In Europe, there is still sort of the perception that New Zealand is a great holiday destination, but not a technology powerhouse. In niche areas we probably are.

We had hundreds of people coming through the stand, and we had over 200 qualified candidates. What the New Zealand Trade and Enterprise and the Department of Labour would like to understand more from businesses is really where the needs are. We're trying to pull together initiatives like this, trying to do different ways and means to help New Zealand businesses to source skilled

labour.

In my opinion, it's not only that we get skilled labour out of other countries into New Zealand, but foremost, is that we build a pipeline of people here in New Zealand to step into that. Prepare for the long haul

Katrina Troughton: We are seeing many opportunities for people offshore that are highly competitive, and New Zealand will struggle to keep them.

Brian Pink: Places like New Zealand create and produce very good people. Coming out of the university system, the word is their oyster. If they're any good, a lot of them are going to have part of their career at least offshore. But that's the market that we've got to keep thinking about in a much wider context, not just in IT.

Panellists:

Martin Barry, Auckland manager, absolute IT

Phil Brimacombe, CIO, healthAlliance

Grant Burley, director, absoluteIT

Peter Jameson, CIO, Redeal

Martin Knoche, ICT sector manager, New Zealand Trade and Enterprise

Warrick Laing, IT director, Accident Compensation Corporation

Jon Macdonald, IT manager, Trade MeAlan Mayo, group IT architect, Warehouse

Steve Mayo-Smith, CIO, Auckland District Health Board

Tina Ng, Wellington director, absoluteIT

Pat O'Connell, CIO, Carter Holt Harvey

Tim Occleshaw, CIO, Ministry of Social Development

Brian Pink, chief executive, Statistics New Zealand

Katrina Troughton, managing director, IBM New Zealand

Warwick Wright, CIO, State Services Commission

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