Are IT employers asking too much?

Many IT workers believe employers are increasingly asking for an unrealistically large number of skills in the people they take...

Many IT workers believe employers are increasingly asking for an unrealistically large number of skills in the people they take on. In the first of a two part series, employers explain why they feel they are entitled to expect more from their staff. Roisin Woolnough reports

Employers have become greedy, or so some IT professionals say. Several readers have complained to Xtra! that employers are being too demanding in their selection process, putting out job specifications that require people with expertise in not just one or two skills, but six or seven, and years of experience to boot.

However, Terry Watson, head of IT at Lewisham Hospital, does not agree that hirers are asking for too much. He says they are simply being more choosy than they were a couple of years ago and that if anyone is to blame, it is the IT professionals themselves.

"People are tightening up on their job specifications a bit because of people who have come along with inflated CVs in the past," he says. "People tend to view what they have with rose-tinted spectacles and there have been a lot of people selling themselves with wonderful credentials. For example, you get people who have seen Windows 2000 but put down on their CV that they have experience in it."

Watson says he has hired several people for whom, once they started work, it soon became apparent they had far less experience than they had led him to believe. He once took on someone who claimed to be an experienced certified Novell engineer and on being asked to perform his first task admitted that he could not do it because he had passed the exam but did not have any practical experience.

Two years ago, ITers could just about get away with this kind of behaviour because companies were desperate for expertise and skilled people were in short supply. Now there are plenty of ITers seeking work, it is a buyers' market and employers can afford to call the shots. Even experienced and highly skilled IT professionals are finding it hard to get new jobs, so hirers know that they can get the people they want and need.

"When the market was easy, people would take them on regardless," says Watson. "With hindsight and in the current climate, people are now being as careful as they can about the recruitment process."

Duncan Mears, director of recruitment at Accenture HR Services and formerly an IT manager presiding over a team of 400 people, agrees. "With many contractors chasing a significantly lower number of positions, managers know they are in a strong negotiating position and are trying to get as much for their money as they can," he says. "However, the smart employers are also increasing the years of experience and number of commercial uses of a product they ask for, rather than just the number of skills."

Since UK industry, and the IT industry in particular, started suffering a financial downturn, many IT departments have been pared down to an absolute minimum. Redundancies and recruitment freezes have been widespread, making it very hard for IT managers to buy in new skills when they need them, either on a temporary or permanent basis. When they do get any recruitment initiatives signed off, the pressure is on for the people they hire to be exactly right for the job and fulfil as many requirements as possible.

"Line managers have reduced budgets and are therefore trying to combine technical roles. They are hiring one contractor to fill what might have previously been two roles," says Mears.

When a manager knows the team needs an extra three or four people to run operations properly but they can only afford one new recruit, who can blame them for asking as much of that one individual as they can?

Added to this, most IT jobs require more than just technical knowledge these days. Employers want people who have business experience, who understand how their daily work fits in with the overall business. Unless they are looking to fill a junior vacancy, this means they will want someone with several years' experience and a proven track record of delivering IT that meets business needs.

Jobs that are advertised now generate a much higher number of applications than during the boom times, meaning that managers and human resources departments find themselves inundated with CVs and phone calls. Watson's approach is to try to dissuade the no-hopers from applying in the first place by spelling out exactly what skills he needs. "From the outset, what you try to do is to be as clear about the kind of person you want as you can be because you need to keep the tide at bay," he says.

What usually happens, particularly in larger companies, is that the IT manager draws up their wish list of what skills they need and the kind of person they want. That is passed on to the human resources staff, who interpret the requirements and polish up the specification. That specification is often then sent on to an agency, which will also interpret and modify it.

Having gone through all these channels, there is plenty of scope for the specification to have been misinterpreted and altered along the way. But the real problem, according to Jane Akshar, chairman of the Professional Contractors Group, is that agency and human resources staff rarely understand IT and its different skill sets.

"They often are not technically aware and don't know what they are talking about," she says. "Often neither the HR department or the agency know what those skills mean."

In order to ensure that the end result makes sense and is what the IT manager wants, Akshar says it is imperative that they create watertight specifications in the first place. "Employers need to give very good specifications," she says. "Otherwise it does not give HR and the agency much of a chance to get it right. What project managers should be saying is 'this skill is a must-have, these skills would be nice to have and they should have exposure to this'." If it is feasible, the IT manager should ask to see the finished specification to give it the final okay.

Watson says that if he were looking to take on a new project manager, for example, he would make it clear that the primary requirement was for someone with project management experience. "I would focus on that as the main skill area and perhaps look at some of the technical stuff needed as well," he says. "If I was looking for a network manager, I might also be looking for familiarity with Novell, networking development and NT."

Like Akshar, Watson thinks it is important to establish what skills are absolutely necessary and what are added value.

Next week: ITers' views on the recruitment process

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