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Bridging the gap

Bridging the gap

The IT skills shortage looks set to worsen. But are employers and education providers doing enough to help themselves and each other?

Kristin School in Auckland lost three of its small IT team last year and is still looking to replace them. Telecom New Zealand reports 90 IT vacancies.

Across the globe, increasingly organisations report labour shortages, especially in information technology and disciplines such as Java programming.

Organisations cut back on training following the bursting of the IT bubble early this century, observes Tony Hooper, director of professional programs at the Victoria University of Wellington's department of informatics.

But as demand takes off again, cohorts of baby boomers are set to leave the jobs market in coming years, making labour shortages even worse.

Gartner research warns some 21 million IT jobs would be created globally by 2012 but only 17 million would have the skills to fill the vacancies.

In New Zealand, such skills shortages are already biting, as outlined by a pre-Christmas Department of Labour survey of 16 local recruitment agencies.

The annual survey notes some 74 specialisations were in shortage compared with 55 in December 2004, with more than half of recruiters saying such skills were "difficult" or "very difficult" to find.

The specialisations recruitment agencies identified as having the most acute shortages are J2EE, data warehousing applications, java, business analysis and CCNE.

The broad categories in which the agencies had the most difficulty in recruiting candidates were: Network engineering, application development, framework development and process and systems management.

In contrast, recruiters had less difficulty recruiting candidates in the telecommunications and multimedia information technology categories.

"The shortage is mainly due to the fact that employment of IT professionals has grown rapidly since the early 1990s. From mid-2001, growth has accelerated. On average, almost 3500 positions are being created each year," says a Department of Labour statement.

"At the same time, there has been a strong growth in supply, driven mainly by increasing numbers of people getting IT degrees at university. More than 1800 IT degrees were awarded in 2003. Projections suggest this will remain steady for 2004.

"Additionally, supply from higher education has been supplemented by a rise in net migratory inflows of IT professionals. In 2004, there was a net inflow of 237 IT professionals.

"But demand has outgrown supply since the upturn in the IT sectors," the statement continues.

Indeed, Sid Huff, head of the school of information management at VUW, says the jobs market for its graduates is "too good". IT students are leaving after three years, rather than stay on for an honours fourth year of study, which would "broaden and deepen" their IT knowledge, he says.

At the coalface

So, how serious is the problem on the coalface and what are IT executives doing about it?

At the recent MIS Careers Fair in Wellington in November, five CIOs were asked how many people they have employed in the past 12 months with qualifications but no experience. Only two said they had, while another said these graduates may be coming through the organisation as employees of its outsourcing partner.

But IS executives themselves have split views on the extent of the shortage. Archives New Zealand CIO Ken Spagnolo says skills shortages are "not a huge issue and not something I am devoting a huge effort to".

Auckland City Council reports the situation is "not serious" and that it only had a few specialist roles that were hard to fill.

However, Auckland University's faculty of education reports "difficulties" in hiring staff and Auckland-based healthAlliance calls the situation "serious" as it loses 30 per cent of its 90-strong IT department every year.

"It took us six months to hire a database administrator team leader. We have been searching for a server administrator and software packager for nearly six months," says healthAlliance CIO Phil Brimacombe.

Brimacombe says it is very hard to find the right people, especially where cultural values, teamwork and the ability to handle pressure are also vital skills.

"We would rather go without than hire the wrong person," he says.

So what is healthAlliance and its CIO doing? Brimacombe says he and his organisation put much effort into working with recruitment agencies, especially explaining his requirements to them, so applicants can develop themselves to meet their requirements. It also hires immigrants to fill the roles.

Kristin School finds it cannot compete on salaries offered elsewhere, so it has changed how it presents itself.

"There is a new style in how we advertise - less focus on being a school, more on an IT environment working with smart people," explains CIO Jason MacDonald.

"Cool IT, an interesting and fun culture with staff knowing what is going on, sharing knowledge, and saying this is the best place to work for also helps," he says.

Furthermore, a location in Auckland's North Shore is touted for those wanting to miss city commuting.

Auckland City Council also actively recruits from overseas, using overseas recruitment agencies to attract staff. Last year, the council had a booth at the "Opportunities New Zealand Expo" in London.

Auckland City Council also tries to create a 'positive' culture, and promotes this as a point of difference. Furthermore, Rae says he takes "a personal interest" in ensuring all his permanent staff have completed training and development plans that reflect their career aspirations.

"I also encourage a culture of opportunity within the IT area that allows staff to expand their skill sets and grow professionally e.g. through secondments.

"I also personally 'market' the IT-related activities we have at Auckland City at any opportunity we will get. This is about developing and maintaining an appropriate brand and reputation for what we do and offer in the eyes of prospective employees," he says.

As a global company, Vodafone also recruits from overseas, and also loses some to overseas, including a former head of technology. One way of doing this is advertising jobs on its global intranet.

Acting director of technology Ken Tunnicliffe says his job includes monitoring staff turnover figures so the company has proactive programs to retain key staff and their skills.

"This includes things such as targeted training programs and investing in staff's personal development needs, ensuring New Zealand is actively engaged in our global technology team and looking for development opportunities for New Zealand staff overseas in our global company," says Tunnicliffe.

"Once a person joins Vodafone, we concentrate on ensuring they have the abilities to perform in the role with clear job goals and targets. Behind this sits an individual development plan which identifies development and future capability needs and drives specific training and investment. However, sometimes this is not enough."

The 'milk round'

In the UK, it is common for larger employers to tour the country's universities and similar tertiary centres in search of suitable graduates - a process known as "the milk round".

However, in New Zealand, such a process seems less common, or at least less formal.

Auckland City Council, for example, admits to having no formal links with universities or making any direct efforts to recruit graduates.

"There is no particular reason why we don't have links with local universities. Over the years, we have taken on students who needed the work experience as part of their studies and Auckland City could provide an appropriate opportunity that we would both benefit from.

"This occurs on a case-by-case and when needs of both students and Auckland City come together rather than a program of involvement," explains Rae.<p/>Health Alliance also has no links with tertiary institutions, claiming it is dissatisfied with their output.

"Many people today, including graduates, seem to have poor ability to communicate and express themselves, poor levels of spelling, vocabulary, grammar and a very poor ability to construct an argument or logical analysis.

"This means that they have difficulty with writing reports and business cases, and with delivering presentations. They cannot organise and summarise material. They write without putting themselves in the position of the person receiving the information. Instead, they write only from their own perspective, using terminology and jargon only they understand, and without explanation for understanding by the reader," says Brimacombe.

However, Vodafone claims relationships with all the major universities, in particularly Auckland University and AUT. It supports university projects and research, sometimes making guest lecturer appearances, as it takes on some two to four technology graduates every year.

Vodafone also recruits directly from the main universities and polytechnics each May, with both current graduates and leadership team members giving presentations on working for Vodafone.

"The quality of the graduates we see applying for our graduate program is extremely high. Graduates are now starting to not only pursue top academic grades, but are also pushing themselves to achieve in other areas of their life, such as sports, community work and work experience," says Tunnicliffe.

Telecom has a Graduate Cadet Program, which recruits staff for its IT team. Telecom developed its Management Development Program with New Zealand universities and also plans to strengthen links with the education sector, including high schools, as a key strategy in 2006.

"We also provide input into the reviews of the schools' technology curriculum to ensure a broader base of skills for the industry," says CIO Mark Ratcliffe.

Indeed, how does industry end education work together on training? What does the education sector say?

VUW's Tony Hooper accepts a gap exists between industry-related courses like the MCSE, Oracle DBAs, etc, and tertiary degree and diploma courses.

"We have to recognise that they serve different purposes. At the same time, the specific requirements of specialised industries require them to ensure skills development training for their employees."

VUW produces a variety of IT and IT management programs, which Hooper runs himself. His research on IT skills issues also helps the university in planning its courses. The university works with industry groups, recently helping Gen-i stage a recruitment event there.

Anne Buzeika, general manager information services at the Auckland University's faculty of education, says its business school and engineering faculty has "relationships" with its relevant industry groups, with very strong links created at a personal level, such as between Apple and the university's Apple trainer.

Buzeika says the faculties, including her own, have some input into the courses.

But she admits some disparity between "what the community really wants and needs" and what is offered. "The focus seems to be on the theory and misses the boat on the practical."

Kristin School reports that it too is offering more advanced courses for students seeking IT careers. Major universities are also coming to schools like Kristin to see how they can address skills shortages, notes MacDonald.

"Universities talk to us. We take students up to Massey University. We have links with Unitec," he says.

But are these efforts enough and who should actually be responsible for training? Telecom believes employers are responsible for providing the environment and opportunities that encourage people to move into IT as a career.

VUW's Hooper also says employers must accept responsibility for upskilling their staff, as it will be they who benefit from the competitive advantage they gain.

However, for more specific skills, MacDonald believes in "a shared responsibility" with training, so an employer like Kristin School must be expected to pay for work-related training. But what if extra training makes someone so more employable that they leave?

Some education institutes say they have thought of 'bonding' staff, like asking them to stay for a certain period if they are sent for training, but admit little can be done.

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