What skills crisis?

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1 September 2012 | 0

Is there an ICT skills crisis in Ireland? The practical answer in the sector and in business generally would appear to be the very Irish one-"Sure, there is and there isn’t, depending on how you look at it." Government and state agencies, plus the ICT sector leaders who are looking to the longer term future, have been quite rightly continuing to tap the drums about the supply side. The Government itself does seem to be genuinely conscious of the potential position and committed to steering the less than wieldy national education system in a broadly more mathematical and scientific direction.

This year’s improvements in Leaving Cert results and STEM subjects take-up at third level cannot disguise a longer term challenge. The concern is that we will not have-and indeed may already be short of-the work entry level graduates to fulfil our national ambitions for foreign direct investment and hoped for employment and economic growth. That broad concern also spans all of the high tech sectors, like electronics and medical devices and pharmachem, although ICT is arguably now as fundamental across all sectors as accountancy. Whatever one’s opinion about the 25 bonus marks or the degree of movement away from our traditional liberal and literary curriculum, awareness and action at state level have to be regarded as progress.

Shallower pool
But in general that lower level of school leavers and new graduates is not yet where the more practical impact is taking place right now in what is undoubtedly a shallower national talent pool and many gaps in our skills range. There are challenges and mini-crises in individual organisations and some niche sectors in trying to fill jobs at the lower mid-level and upper ranks. IT people with say three to five years’ experience, or at the 10-15 plus managerial level, are at a premium, especially those with specific skills, proven track records and experience in certain fields that are currently in growth mode or in high need or often both. Let’s not be coy: project management, cloud deployment, mobile apps, security, C++ and Java if you are code-inclined are all good, familiarity with VMware, Cisco and Citrix is universally beloved of prospective employers (certification better still), and the Microsoft ecosystem continues to propagate. There are over 84,000 jobs in the ICT sector itself and more than 4,000 additional jobs were announced or advertised in 2011, a nearly five per cent growth rate that is far from gloomy.

We talked to consultants, employment agencies and large employers and the consensus was consistent. Filling specific vacancies at post-experience levels, especially those which ideally would have candidates in the roughly 10-year experience bracket, is a challenge across the board. Graduate entry and junior recruitment is still not an issue. Senior managers and directors are somewhat less abundant than might be expected post-Tiger but then at this level organisations would be careful and choosy anyway.

 

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Active recruiters
The multinationals are clearly the most active recruiters in recent years and for the foreseeable. They are also where the government planners and agencies are looking with concern. As a sweeping generalisation, they are skill-hunting in slightly different channels. The new generation of global online enterprises like Google, Amazon, eBay, LinkedIn and others are, almost by definition, looking for the skill sets most currently in demand-in fact they are effectively generating most of that demand globally. But other longer established FDI giants like IBM, HP and Microsoft have vacancies and skills needs from time right across the board. In the meantime, our indigenous businesses in all sectors including the state have to compete with the global giants for local staff.

We asked Google. "In essence, we do not have a problem, certainly not in a general way," says Jim Deighton, lead recruiter for EMEA Engineering and IT Operations. "We try to live up to our objective of hiring the best of the best and of course there is competition for those people. But in this as in other aspects of business we see competition as a good thing, maintaining standards and encouraging and rewarding talented, hardworking people."

He believes that Google has a strong and attractive ‘brand’ as an employer, a factor that continually helps the enterprise refresh and expand its staff with some of the best talent available. "We always look in the Irish market first, and have been successful more often than not in recruiting the skill sets we have been seeking. But we also search around EMEA where very specific skills are needed. Most top range people have excellent technical English as their second language, so that is seldom a constraint. The same recruitment conditions apply, however. There is competition for experienced and skilled people."

Deighton adds that Dublin is a highly regarded work location for many younger technical people. It is regarded as a friendly and in fact family-friendly city to live and work in, with lots of cultural and open air activity-and a fine social reputation. "Our Irish location has very definitely added to the overall attraction of Google as an employer and to our ability to attract and retain staff."

Competitive notions
So it is competitive even for the global corporations? It certainly is, according to IBM Ireland’s recruitment manager Rick Goetzee. "Having completed a major hiring programme last year, we are currently recruiting across a range of specific skills that we need all the time to strengthen certain parts of the business. We use social media extensively, especially LinkedIn. We actively target and approach people with the skill sets we are looking for." IBM is upfront and straightforward, as might be expected, simply emailing potential recruits with information about the company and the role it is trying to fill and inviting a response. After that the process goes to normal CV submission, phone interview or other initial screening and so on.

"We do quite well overall, but it’s hard work digging around. We certainly look around the EU for such recruits-because there are no issues in employing people-and despite our lower economic reputation many candidates do regard Dublin and Ireland as an attractive location," Goetzee says. IBM Ireland no longer uses employment agencies except for very specific niche positions and senior roles.

Goetzee is very specific about the skills that are the hardest to recruit. "People who are current in cloud computing, Java, web security, XaaS are where we are all competing for talent, so it is challenging. Software development continues to be a tough one. But the area where we can offer jobs to start on Monday," says Goetzee, "is software testing. It’s the less glamorous complement to software development and it is very hard to get experienced and capable people."

Not easy
That same feedback about it being ‘hard work to track down the candidates with suitable skills and experience’ comes from Accenture Ireland, which has been consistently hiring over the last 12 months. "We have hired some very good people in that three to ten years’ experience range, notably developers and some project managers, who have made good career progress. But it has not been easy," says Dave Regan, senior executive in the firm’s Technology practice who is also involved in the new Accenture Analytics Innovation Centre in Dublin. "Traditionally, Accenture has recruited graduates and built up its skills resources form there. Experienced hires are less common but have been growing to fulfil specific business activities. We are hiring aggressively at the moment, so much so that a significant constraint is the availability of the senior internal managers to make the final recruitment decisions."

Like IBM, Accenture does not headhunt and seldom uses recruitment agents. "We do a lot of work through LinkedIn and other social media and we promote our career opportunities through Facebook," says Regan. "We looked for skills in analytics, for example, and were surprisingly successful at attracting conversations. We also encourage and make good use of internal referrals."

At a national level, he says unequivocally that there is an actual shortage of ICT skills at that particular experience level (roughly five to ten or more years) and consequently that is where recruitment is most difficult. "This is quite simply the underlying deficit from previous years of graduate output now hitting the market and having a progressive effect. We are also noting that the quality of today’s graduates is not quite as high as in the past-their breadth of technical knowledge and skills is reduced."

Top down
The Irish Computer Society and its CEO Jim Friars have a very clear top down view of the professional ICT scene. "Of course the big blue chip and global brands are perceived as attractive employers and great career opportunities. Young graduates especially will naturally aspire in that direction, plus the fact that they offer entry to the latest and greatest technologies."

But at the mid-level and up, which is our concern, Friars points to a recent survey of ICS members that showed just about half of them are even thinking about job change. "Of those 41% would be willing to consider an opportunity if offered. But just 10% are actively looking for a change."

As far as the current competition for skills is concerned, the ICS points out that about 40% of the positions on offer are for software engineers, with the balance spread over the fairly obvious current developments in ICT and areas such as project management, networking, mobile and online services and security.

"There is one specialisation and career opportunity that is about to explode," Friars says, "and most people are simply unaware of it. The EU is planning to make it mandatory for all organisations employing over 250 staff to appoint a Data Protection Officer (DPO) from 2014. This is an emerging role that will clearly develop over time. From an ICT point of view, it will not necessarily involve a high technical skill level generally. But in larger organisations, state bodies and sectors such as finance or healthcare a deep understanding of systems would clearly be a significant advantage if not essential."

Compliance in this area will be a serious matter, with potential fines of 1-2% of turnover for serious breaches, which will automatically give the DPO role some clout. The ICS is already ahead of the curve on this one, with the new Association of DPOs formed under its auspices earlier this year and already at 350 members. As well as contributing to the professional development of the role and organising training courses, the ADPO will be making submissions to government and aiming to influence our national implementation of the new EU regime.

Although it is clear that prospective employers are looking to social media and other channels for recruitment-and the larger ones have deep HR resources to implement strategic manpower road maps-the agencies are still at the heart of the skills market action. They use the new web channels also, of course, and with a varied range of clients may well be doing so more creatively or more subtly. Initial anonymity is acceptable from an agency where it would not be from a major corporation. That can certainly be a much more effective tactic in winkling out what Ian Kingston, operations manager of Stelfox, refers to as ‘passive candidates’.

Good reason
"The more mature IT people with that important level of experience-five, ten, fifteen years or more-are not throwing out CVs or fishing. They understand the sector and the market and they are simply not about to make a move without good reason. There’s also the small market element. You don’t want to be seen to be anxious to move and you certainly don’t want your CV floating out there for months on end."

Stelfox and other specialists recruiters can approach such people gently, even indirectly, to solicit interest in a specific and appropriate opportunity or, more rarely, employer. Social media offer channels that enable targeting without the difficulties of traditional ‘headhunting’.

Salary is generally, Kingston says, not even close to the very top of what might incentivise such passive candidates to consider and make a career move. "New technology and opportunities, perhaps a high end ‘brand’ employer, scope and authority and career progression or a move into a more lively sector. These kinds of factors appeal much more. In any event, at the middle levels the likely salary gain after tax is not going to be huge. Shares and bonuses and so on may boost the attraction but they are not immediate gains."

The so-called ‘skills crisis’ is very mixed and, in Kingston’s view, somewhat over-emphasised because there is multinational recruitment going on at a healthy level and so there is a lot of competition for experienced and skilled people in certain areas and at certain levels. "The most active market has a narrow focus at a number of specific levels because these employers want in each case someone who will come in and do the job right now."

Finished products
That point is echoed firmly by Peter Cosgrove, director of CPL. "The multinationals are looking for the finished products all the time. They are risk-averse and they also want the new hire to be operational immediately. But then they also spend a lot of time looking around for exactly what they specify and there are plenty of jobs in those big corporations not being filled."

Irish enterprises, service businesses and others are in general much more willing to look at good, experienced people who have 60-70% or more of the skills and will grow into the role, Cosgrove said. He confirms that money is not the most important element, even in these tough times, and the superficial perks of free lunches and 21st century working styles do not particularly attract the mature and confident professionals.

"What does attract, and it’s hardly new, is new scope and prospects and some sort of visible future path matching the person’s skills set and interests. That could well be a smaller company and greater responsibility. Many technical people develop business and leadership skills and like the combination-that’s the potential CIO stream-while others love software engineering challenges and niche expertise at the leading edge."

From the employer point of view, Cosgrove says, Ireland still has a good cohort of all of these and more junior people gaining experience and coming up behind them. "The employer ‘brand’ is important if you are seeking to attract the best talent at any level and compete with the multinationals. It is not just the glamour. These corporations are seen to be at the forefront of technology. Yet there are small software companies, for example, or apparently dull and boring old enterprises with exciting technical developments going on. The telcos have technical teams working on cutting edge projects that could only exist at that high level. The point is that any organisation looking to compete in recruitment has to look very carefully at what it has to offer the kind of candidate it wants. What does this role offer that type of person?"

The challenge in competing for the limited pool of experienced and skilled and talented ICT people is in many respects between the employers rather than the candidates, it emerges. At the same time the people who are actively or quietly looking for a job, a better job or a break into a more active sector do have to compete in terms of the skills currently in demand. What are they? In truth anyone in ICT could probably draw up a largely accurate list on the back of a beer mat on Friday night…. Web, cloud, mobile, virtualisation, C++ and Java, the entire Microsoft stack, Cisco and lots of certification. Data analytics is clearly a comer, while that new Data Governance role is certainly going to generate well-paid work.

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