Convergence leads to skills gap incomms

New network technologies and mobile devices are altering the telecoms skills market at an exponential rate and staff can benefit...

New network technologies and mobile devices are altering the telecoms skills market at an exponential rate and staff can benefit from the skills shortage as firms vie for their talents. Bill Goodwin reports

There has never been a better time to be working in the communications sector. The telecoms industry is expanding at break-neck speed, and new technologies such as Wap, Bluetooth and third generation (3G) mobile phones are creating exciting opportunities for comms personnel.

The past 12 months have seen a significant shift in direction for the industry. After decades of talk about the convergence of voice and data it is finally beginning to happen. Demand for the voice telephony skills that were once the foundation of the industry is showing signs of decline. Employers are crying out for engineers with data communications, mobile communications and Internet expertise.

The story is unfolding through the jobs pages. Over the past year the number of adverts for specialists with Wap and Internet skills has grown dramatically. For the first time, Wap and XML feature in the top 25 of the Computer Weekly/SSP survey of the most sought-after IT skills. The demand for staff with Internet experience has doubled, and Java has shot up from 10th to second place. Wan, Lan and TCP/IP skills are also still very much in demand.

Recruitment companies are reporting record numbers of requests for people with expertise in Voice over IP, network engineering, and wireless Internet. And, according to Phil Wareham, fixed and mobile recruitment specialist at MSB, demand for people with mobile communications skills is going through the roof.

The need for telecoms and networking staff with these hot skills is already exceeding supply. Research by Cisco and IDC suggests that by next year there will be 600,000-person shortfall of staff with the necessary skills to design and manage networks in Europe.

A survey by telecoms training organisation NTO adds weight to Cisco's findings. It shows that 10% of UK telecoms employers are having difficulty recruiting both technical and non-technical staff.

Telecoms engineers, cable installers and people with expertise in opto-electronics, radio telephony and network skills are in particularly short supply, says Peter Hounsome, research manager at NTO Half of the companies reporting recruitment difficulties claim that skills shortages are damaging their performance.

Regional variations only serve to make the problem worse. In the UK as a whole the need for telecoms engineers is expected to grow by 17% next year. But the NTO survey predicts that demand in Yorkshire, Humberside and Wales, where recruitment problems are already acute, will grow by up to 33%.

Recruitment is already a major headache for telecoms manufacturers and operators that hire hundreds of staff at a time. "There are probably 10 jobs for every person out there. Companies are scrapping to find the right people," says Graham McKean, recruitment specialist at MSB International.

Even big name employers such as BT say it is becoming increasingly difficult to find the right people. "There is a general shortage of people with good technical skills, IP and IT generally, particularly coupled with good commercial and interpersonal skills. You can find one of them, even two of them, but getting all three in the same person is like finding gold dust," says Harvey Nash, manager for strategic skills and capabilities at BT. "Frankly," he adds, "the position is going to get worse."

Andrea Grice, recruitment consultant with Cable &Wireless, agrees. "All the skills we need are hard to come by. To get someone with all the technologies and all the specialisms we need is very hard." But she says it is digital skills that pose the greatest problem.

There are fears that the introduction of IR35 could make matters worse. IR35 is a new tax regime that forces contractors to pay higher national insurance contributions. New rules also mean that contractors can only offset 5% of their expenses and training costs against tax. Contractors claim that IR35 will force them to seek work overseas, leading to a potential exodus of skills. However, opinions are divided as to whether IR35 is having a real impact on the skills pool.

Wareham believes IR35 is certainly having an effect. With new telephone networks developing worldwide, contractors can afford to pick and choose where they want to work, he says. GSM specialists are turning down offers of work in the UK for placements in Africa, Morocco and Saudi Arabia, where taxes are lower. "One of the biggest reasons why these guys won't work in the UK is because of IR35. It is as simple as that," he says.

In contrast, Chris Eldridge, director of recruitment at Harvey Nash (no connection with BT's Nash), says that IR35 has yet to have a noticeable effect on the contractor market. "You have a better chance of filling a vacancy in the short-term with a contractor than with a permanent member of staff," he says.

Employers are responding to the shortages by offering increasingly generous salaries. Research by recruitment consultant Robert Walters shows that pay for people with the skills most in demand has risen by 20% since 1999. However, other recruitment agencies are more cautious. Harvey Nash believes that 10%-15% is a more accurate figure.

An entry-level signalling engineer can currently expect to earn at least £30,000 a year. At the other end of the salary spectrum, consultants and senior sales staff can expect to earn £80,000 (see table, p42). Self-employed contractors, particularly those with GSM experience, can look forward to earning £500 to £600 a day. But it pays to shop around. According to MSB, some well-known employers are still offering yesterday's salaries.

Sadly, there are losers as well as winners in the pay stakes. Old-fashioned network staff have seen their pay rise by just over the rate of the inflation during the past year. Like the rest of the IT industry, they are still feeling effects of the post-Y2K IT spending slow down.

But pay is not the only consideration. Employers are adopting some ingenious strategies to find the personnel they need. Energis, for example, has brought in workers from South Africa and is now looking to recruit in Australia and New Zealand. Cable & Wireless employs communications specialists from Malta, Germany, the Netherlands, Australia and South Africa.

A relaxation in immigration laws announced by the Government in September will make it easier for companies to get work permits for skilled overseas staff, provided they are genuinely in short supply in the UK.

The armed forces have also been a fertile recruitment ground for some companies. MSB, for instance, recruits between 30 and 50 ex-service people a month for clients including Ericsson and Nortel. They make good recruits, says Tracey Abbott, head of personnel recruitment at MSB.

"An awful lot of them have been working in signals for the forces, so they actually have the telecoms skills that companies require. They can be cross-trained extremely easily because they understand the system," she says.

The best candidates tend to be non-commissioned officers and ordinary servicemen who have spent a few years in the military. Those who have been in the services longer can find it harder to adjust to civilian life. "An awful lot of people find it hard to adjust from having done six tours of duty in Northern Ireland. Working in an office can cause a lot of issues," says Abbott.

BT has begun a series of initiatives to create its own supply of skilled staff by cross-training workers from other areas of the business. "We are retraining our own people and skilling them up," says Nash. "We are shifting people from voice to data, providing them with greater awareness of what the Internet offers."

BT is also working with the Communications Workers Union and Queen Mary & Westfield College to create an online degree course. It could eventually allow up to 40 BT employees a year to complete an IT degree over the Internet.

Other initiatives, such as equipping field workers with Internet-enabled laptop computers, and insisting that job applicants apply over the Web, are also encouraging staff to develop Internet skills.

Training also plays a key role in Nortel Networks' recruitment strategy. Although some skills are in extremely short supply Nortel has realised that it is often possible to find people with skills that are closely related to the ones it needs. A few weeks' training can be enough to convert a person with related skills into an employee capable of hitting the ground running.

This approach has successfully filled gaps in Nortel's sales force, and is about to be adopted for technical staff. A person with four to six years' experience in electronic engineering, for instance, could be retrained in network technology within about six to eight weeks.

Another programme, called Go-Hire, is also making a big impact on Nortel's recruitment figures. The scheme, which has been running since July, turns every member of staff into a potential recruiter. "If you introduce a friend or associate that we hire, we will pay you up to $5,000," says Wendell Sherrell, director of talent acquisition at Nortel. "To date, globally, we have received 15,000 CVs."

Once you have found staff, retaining them in the current climate is not easy. Poaching is rife, says McKean. "More and more clients are looking for agencies that are actively headhunting. They give you a list of clients they want you to headhunt from. They are specifically targeting other organisations to pull out their staff."

But poaching also occurs within companies. For example, contractors have been lured away from contracts with a firm in Portugal to more lucrative contracts with the same company in Spain.

For employers such as Cable & Wireless, there are two key reasons why staff remain loyal. One is that the company ensures they get to work on leading-edge technology. The other is that it invests heavily in their training. "For a lot of technical people, it is the excitement of working with new technology, being able to innovate," explains Grice. "That can retain them and motivate them a lot more than giving them an extra £5,000 a year."

Cable & Wireless makes a point of moving engineers around to increase their experience. Staff working for the company's Internet hosting centres can expect to have a stint in one of 20 overseas sites as part of a fast-track career development programme. Cable & Wireless also has reciprocal arrangements with its suppliers so that its telecoms engineers, for example, can spend time working for Ericsson.

BT takes a similar line. "Assuming that you match the market salaries, what is probably more important to a lot of people is that they have exciting and challenging work, the nature of the company, and their colleagues. That's how to keep people," says Nash. "BT has an advantage over smaller companies, in that we are in so many different areas and we can move people around."

Nortel has created a talent management team to ensure that its most valuable employees remain happy. "We look at them on an individual basis, at what we call their value propositions, whether it be salary or career growth, and we develop customised programmes to support those people," says Sherrell. "You have to appeal to people's career aspirations and their personal life."

The telecoms industry is partly a victim of its own success, but it must also share some of the blame for the current shortages. Many companies have a poor track record at hiring and training new staff, preferring instead to poach qualified staff from competitors. The careers information provided to schools and universities in the past has been poor quality. And there have been concerns that the universities are failing to produce the sort of graduates that employers need.

Since these problems were highlighted by the recent Alan Stevens report on Information Communications Technology, things are starting to change.

Employers such as BT, Cable & Wireless, Energis, Motorola and One2One have begun to collaborate to raise the profile of telecoms in schools and colleges. They are working on career packs and are planning "network days" to educate children about opportunities in telecommunications.

They are also running summer camps for children interested in working in telecoms. One features a datacoms talk from a Nasa astronaut. In addition, for the first time, employers are beginning to collect accurate labour market statistics. NTO, the Department for Education and Employment, training bodies and employers are planning regular surveys of skills demands. They expect to produce the first detailed survey by the end of the year, with quarterly updates to follow.

The work will provide employers and universities with the first accurate country-wide research on the changing skills needs of the telecoms industry. The data will allow employers and training organisations to respond much more quickly to the introduction of new technologies. This should ensure that universities will not be producing voice telephony engineers when the rising demand is for digital communications engineers.

What's in a title?

The growing importance of corporate networks to the business has led to the need for serious support from staff with expert knowledge. Here are some of the most common job titles and the tasks that are assigned to them:

Network Consultants

Network experts working for computer suppliers and specialist consultant firms.

Senior Network Engineers or Analysts

The job involves the high level design and installation of networks, including hardware and software. Senior network engineers advise on the security of corporate networks and recovery processes. They normally report to a network manager or a computer services manager.

Network Engineers or Analysts

Network engineers focus on the installation of communications hardware and software of corporate networks. They generally report to senior analysts in a large organisation but may form part of the overall support function in a smaller organisation.

Senior Network Support Technicians

Senior network support technicians are responsible for the maintenance of networks, hardware and cabling. They normally report to a network engineer or network technician. They are sometimes called communications technicians.

Network Support Technicians

Network support technicians are responsible for the implementation, training and development of networked PC systems. They have a good working knowledge of applications such as word processors, spreadsheets, databases and networks. They normally have a minimum of two years' experience as a PC technician.

Network Controllers

Network controllers are responsible for the general operation of communications within a company, including hardware and software. They monitor overall performance and direct recovery procedures.

Network sales support

Responsible for support of network configurations, including voice and data communications. They will support associated software, hardware and installation together with post-sales trouble shooting.

Source: SSP/Computer Weekly

Networking pay rises 1999-2000

Job Advertised Salary (average Q2 2000) Percentage Rise from last year
Network Consultant £60,732 1.6%
Senior network engineer £38,747 3.5%
Network Engineer £29,890 3.0%
Network controller £28,251 4.3%
Senior network technician £26,761 3.4%
Network support technician £21,944 11.1%
Network support sales £40,213 3.4%

Source: Computer Weekly SSP Survey

Rates of pay

Job Salary (£)
Analyst £35,000
Junior project manager £30,000-£35,000
Systems tester £30,000-£35,000
Transmission engineer £30,000-£50,000
Product specialist £40,000
Switching engineer £40,000-£45,000
GSM specialist £40,000-£45,000
Capacity planner £40,000-£45,000
IN specialist £40,000-£45,000
Project manager £40,000-£50,000
Account manager £45,000
Programme manager £50,000-£60,000
Business development manager £50,000-£60,000
Consultant £50,000-£80,000 + bonus
Senior product specialist £60,000
Senior sales £60,000-£80,000 + bonus

Source: Robert Walters

What does it take to get into telecoms?

With new technologies coming along with rapidly increasing frequency, it is almost impossible for employers to predict what skills they are going to need more than two years in advance. As a result, employers are beginning to focus more on the innate abilities of job applicants, rather than their technical skills.

Flexibility, adaptability, initiative, problem solving, communication skills and the ability to work in a team are by far the most important attributes, says Peter Hounsome, research director of NTO "Employers are not really planning more than two or three years ahead, probably 18 months maximum," he says. "Because of the uncertainty, there is a requirement to take on people with generic abilities that show adaptability and flexibility."

Lisa Shortland, recruitment consultant at Cable & Wireless, says,"We are looking for a very disciplined work approach, people who can plan and organise their own time. We are also looking for people driven by the technology and who are driven by learning new skills."

There are a number of routes into telecoms for school leavers. A degree in electrical engineering or other technology subject can be a useful stepping stone.

Another approach is to join a firm as a trainee, perhaps through a modern apprenticeship programme. However, places are limited. In the past five years there have only been 1,800 telecoms modern apprentices in the UK. But NTO expects companies to hire another 2,000 apprentices over the next two years.

Apprentices learn through a mixture of classroom teaching and on-the-job training. A new programme launched this month will provide graduates with the same practical on-the-job training as that offered to school leavers.

For older workers, switching to a career in telecoms from another discipline is less straightforward. Some companies, such as Nortel Networks, are prepared to retrain people from other technical backgrounds, providing they have the right skills, and BT has been recruiting and training ADSL technician engineers from non-telecoms backgrounds in large numbers for the past year or so. NTO generally advises people who want to make the switch to telecoms to book themselves on a training course with their local college as a first step.

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