Employment: Unreasonable requests

Last week Xtra! asked why IT employers feel entitled to demand ever more from job candidates. This week ITers answer back and...

Last week Xtra! asked why IT employers feel entitled to demand ever more from job candidates. This week ITers answer back and explain why they feel firms have gone too far. Roisin Woolnough reports

Heard the one about a Windows 2000 job requiring an IT professional with five years' experience? Or the software house looking for someone with expertise in SAP, .net, HTML, ASP, XML, DHTML, Java and Oracle, plus some PL/SQL and dotcom experience thrown in for good measure? OK, so they might not be jokes you would tell down the pub, but ITers say employers must be having a laugh with some of the requirements being put out at the moment.

Readers have been complaining to Xtra! that employers are asking for people with expertise in far more skills than is feasible. And not just that, they also want people with years of experience behind them, commercial exposure and high-level science or maths degrees. Seasoned IT contractor Chris Moden says the situation is now so bad that employers might as well be asking for the moon.

"So many job adverts these days are just unreal," he says. "You see adverts asking for x number of years' experience in a skill, but it has only been out for six months. And you often see adverts where they want someone with eight skills. It is a wish list, because people can only really be expert in one or two skills and very good in another couple, with bits and pieces of other languages and techniques."

Phil Newman, a Citrix consultant, agrees. "If they mean expert, then you can only be expert at two or three skills at the very most. Any more and you wouldn't be effective."

Newman thinks it is impossible for any one person to have a solid understanding of numerous skills, let alone be a specialist in all of them. Should anyone be able to prove him wrong, he says he would wonder about how they had managed to acquire all that knowledge. "You would end up with someone who knows a reasonable amount about each thing, but has no social skills."

It is not just senior-level positions either. There are numerous job adverts asking for entry-level graduates that require them to have knowledge of several skills and proof that they have successfully used those skills in the business environment. "You see adverts for a graduate programmer, for example, asking for good experience of Excel, Java, NT, SQL, plus some Solaris and HP-UX," says Hugh McNeill, a contractor specialising in Unix and network architecture. "There is no way a graduate will come through from university with all those skills."

Learning a new language or operating system properly takes time and application. It is not as simple as enrolling on a course and absorbing all the information. ITers need to apply that knowledge in a real environment and spend at least 18 months getting to grips with it before they can really claim to be proficient.

Moreover, the learning doesn't stop there. Because of the ever-changing nature of IT, individuals need to keep updating their skills and applying their knowledge in new ways. "There is a limited set of technical skills that any one person can keep up to date with," says John Eary, head of the skills source consultancy at the National Computing Centre. "Otherwise you end up being a jack of all trades and master of none."

When employers put these job specifications together, Newman thinks they cannot really expect to find candidates with all the skills listed. "I suspect it is more of a filtering device. It is still difficult to get decent staff, even in the current market, and I suspect employers want to reduce the number of applications they receive."

By doing this, however, employers might be missing out on potentially excellent candidates who will not apply for a job unless they fit the specified criteria.

Eary thinks people should not necessarily be put off if they see a job advert that lists six skills and they have only four of them. It often happens that skilled IT professionals are invited in for interview, even if they are short of a skill or two. "Employers can ask for lots of skills, but whether they actually get what they are asking for is another matter," he says. "They often have to compromise if they are being unrealistic."

In this situation, Eary advises candidates to play on their strengths, but without pretending they know more than they do. "Do not try to pretend you know the additional skills if you don't. The chances are that the other candidates won't know them all either, and if you try to overclaim on what you have, you will be found out."

IT professionals are used to learning about new technologies while they work, and as long as you can prove you have a broad base of knowledge and are capable of picking up new skills, that may satisfy the interviewer. After all, once a project is under way, people tend to deploy only one or two skills most of the time. "You usually use one or two skills for 80% of the time and other skills only 20% of the time," says Moden.

The trick is to persuade your potential employer that you have what it takes to do the job and can learn any additional skills when required.

Are employers asking for too much?
The following demanding job specs have been advertised in the past month.

Application developer: Java and Oracle
Young, dynamic team environment looking for high-calibre Web developers. Must have experience of programming in multi-threaded and TCP environments, object-oriented design, Java, JSP, JDBC and XML. Weblogic version 6.1 cluster running under Windows 2000 Advanced Server development and deployment experience essential. Oracle 9i/8i cursors, exception handling, stored procedures, ER modelling and database design and additional performance tuning essential.

IT developer (MQ series)
Requirement for a highly skilled developer with excellent skills in component design, design patterns, object-oriented analysis, Rational Rose, UML, Swift/Neon, Sun Solaris, Unix, SQL, Unix Shell Korn and MQ series.

Java developer
Blue chip company requires highly skilled candidates with Java, J2EE, EJB, JSP, Javascript, Perl, CGI, BEA Weblogic and XML.

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