Rather than competing with the other trawlers, why not fish in some fresh water to land your prize catch? Alison Classe reports
Go back to school
Not everyone suited to a career in IT necessarily goes to university. Hewlett-Packard is currently trying out a modern apprenticeship scheme, scheduled to draw in 70 people between the ages of 18 and 22 over the next three years. Candidates for the scheme need five good GCSEs. Apprentices receive a mixture of on-the-job and formal training, plus professional mentoring, and earn from £12,000 a year during their apprenticeship. Anyone who passes the two-year apprenticeship should land a permanent HP job.
Training costs of these schemes are subsidised by the government and there has been discussion about providing financial incentives for employer participation. However, the biggest attraction is the prospect of tapping into a new source of talent.
On the downside, usually you have even less CV material to go on when you recruit these people than with a graduate from the milk-round. Naturally not all of them are destined for stardom, but HP seems hopeful that it will get some who are - it has provided a fast-track to permanent employment for exceptional candidates at the end of their first year.
Really equal opportunities
Employers frequently bemoan the small and apparently declining number of women in IT, but a recent survey by the National Computing Centre and Computer Weekly showed that women were on average being paid almost £5,000 less than men with comparable experience and qualifications. It would follow that a business that put women on an equal footing with men would put itself at an advantage when it comes to recruiting and retaining women.
There are indications that other forms of discrimination such as ageism are also rife among IT employers. A study by the Open University Business School recently found that the majority of IT employers continued to favour younger candidates. Interestingly, although recruitment agents are prone to accuse employers of ageism, this study pointed the finger at the agents, together with HR procedures, rather than at IT managers. Perhaps it is time for those enlightened IT managers to insist on interviewing and recruiting those more mature candidates. The same might apply to racism, of which Computer Weekly, 13 April 2000 also uncovered evidence in the IT world last year.
Flex your muscles
Working conditions may be as important a deciding factor as money when staff are deciding whether to come and work for you (or whether to leave).
The NCC Group (not the same as National Computing Centre) recently suggested that employers should give some thought to putting together appealing "work-life balance packages" for hard-pressed IT staff. If you want staff to work overtime, try and give them some choice about when they do it. Let staff work from home if they want to, if their job can be done that way. Ask them what is important to them about their working life, etc.
On the same theme, part-time working and job shares are arrangements that employers may accept only in the case of female employees who become parents, and then only grudgingly. There are indeed overheads to having a larger number of people on the payroll, but how about looking on the bright side? After all, the more people working for you, the bigger the pool of skills you have to draw on. And once again, this flexibility on the employers' part is likely to reinforce their appeal to staff.
If the tried-and-tested recruitment grounds are not yielding the candidates you want, why not try casting the net elsewhere? Richard Youell, operations direct with security specialist nCipher in Cambridge, says the company has been advertising in the local press up and down the country and following the ads up with roadshows in the corresponding towns. "We have picked a mixture of places where we think there are concentrations of people with the right skills and areas where we think there is less competition to recruit," Youell explains.
The screening process is efficient compared with some recruitment methods. "We have a triage system at the door so we do not waste anyone's time. Exceptional candidates, like software engineers wanting to move to Cambridge, get directed straight to someone who can progress things quickly," says Youell.
The main downside of fishing is the cost and difficulty of relocating staff, but the upside is that you may get to meet talented individuals who would normally not cross your path.
Abandon your prejudices - again
Open your mind to recruiting people from unconventional backgrounds. nCipher does this, according to Youell: "We will take people who do not have IT experience but can make up for their lack of experience with enthusiasm. We have already successfully taken people who have cross-trained from other careers - we have got an excellent guy who used to be a postman and put himself through various IT courses because he wanted a change of career."
Mature individuals trying to break into IT from other careers often complain that it is difficult even to get an interview, so an open-minded employer will be at an advantage. Employers may need to expend some effort on helping these recruits get up to speed, but their experience in other fields could well make them a better proposition than the average graduate, and they do have a track record - literally in one case.
Jon Tyler, managing director of Volt Europe, says, "We have taken various people from government-sponsored retraining schemes, including one person who had been a train driver and a train driver instructor. He brought us great maturity, together with some valuable insights into training."
Clasp the ASP
Application service providers are being presented as the answer to skills shortages, yet according to some they are just a jumped-up form of services bureau and/or FM company. So do they have any particular advantages over these older models when it comes to filling competency gaps?
Patrick Coates, managing director of "ASP enablement company" SevenMountains Software, thinks they do. "You can centralise a resource like a Microsoft Exchange expert and make it available to several companies that would otherwise all need their own." He concedes that remote support has been possible in other outsourcing models, but maintains that ASPs enable greater economies of skills because of better ease of remote communication and interaction in their business model.
Coates adds, "More importantly, technical people are very interested in working for ASPs because it is seen as an interesting environment and one that provides valuable experience. The ASPs we talk to tell us that they can attract good people."
Could some of the people you already have provide the skills you need with a little extra training? When resources are short it may not seem the time to start sending people off on training courses, but recent developments in e-learning allow training to be delivered on a just-in-time basis, in very small pieces. NETg has adopted Deskartes, a knowledge management product from KMS, to allow its e-learning materials to be delivered this way. Instead of working through an entire course, the user types what they need to know and is guided to an appropriate learning module.
This approach can work equally for technical and user training (so there is potential for reducing support costs). NETg's director of marketing development, Jon Buttriss, sums up the advantages of just-in-time learning, saying, "You learn best when you need it most."
Y2K projects have made some organisations think that offshore programming is all about legacy systems, but in fact companies like Anglo-Indian software house Rave Technologies report that it is doing a lot of e-business development work. Start-up atmyside.com recently chose Rave to implement its new online sales and customer service application, for example.
There is also the possibility of getting the overseas staff to come to you. Although the Government is trying to make it easier for IT professionals from countries like India to work in the UK, it is not happening fast enough for some. But international recruiters offer to help employers recruit staff overseas now and negotiate the red tape needed to bring them into the country. "We will run ads for opportunities in the UK in the target area, get a shortlist and then fly the client out to interview candidates," says Richard Lloyd, director of the technology division of Robert Walters, which claims to be the largest employer of Australasians in the UK.
He admits that all this can be costly, but says that it is effective enough that employers are doing it not only for top executives but also for senior development staff. The advantage is that you may be able to overcome even a worldwide shortage for the likes of Java skills. "There are a lot of people who would love the opportunity to work in the UK," says Lloyd.
Get 'em young
Getting involved with a local university's IT courses may give you the opportunity to influence the course content and talent-spot.
Large companies can do this on a grand scale - the University of Portsmouth offers a three-year BSc in computer science that is designed and taught jointly with IBM (UK). The 20 or so students per year are employed by IBM for the duration of the course. Even if your company cannot afford anything on this scale, co-operating with local universities and colleges by providing work experience or assignments for students could be a good way to form relationships with promising students who could join you later. You could also mould their expectations of what it would be like working for you, so they do not arrive expecting to be masters of the universe on day one, as one manager ruefully suggests many current graduates do.
Why not go one better and forge links with local schools? School students need work experience too, and if your current employees fancy a bit of community involvement, local schools may welcome help with their IT systems. Who knows, you might even manage to improve the industry's image a bit.
Throw in the towel
Yet another variant on the outsourcing theme allows the beleaguered IT director to off load responsibility for recruitment, or at least the more trying aspects of it. The managed staffing programme, moreprevalent in the US, usually allows large organisations that feel their recruitment has got out of control to hand the whole problem over to a specialist. It is common for recruitment of temporary staff.
Volt Europe is in the managed staffing business as well as being a contract and permanent recruitment outfit and systems house. The company's model involves implementing Web-based procurement software at the client's site to interface with the client's own accounts and HR systems and with Volt's recruitment systems - a form of e-procurement for people. "The client only has to interface to one company - us - and we do all the donkey work of finding people, qualifying them, inducting and so on," says Volt Europe's Jon Tyler.
Tyler argues that a managed staffing company is at an advantage when it comes to locating scarce staff. "Our job is to source staff, so we are able to spread the net wider than an individual recruiter would." Microsoft is among the clients for Volt's managed staffing programmes.
If you have persistent resource shortfalls, it might be worth taking a step back. Some companies, it seems, are in denial about the whole problem. Andy Chestnutt, head of consulting services at Compass Management Consulting, says, "We sometimes see clients whose projects are 30% staffed by contractors and they say it is a temporary measure. But then we go back a year later and they still have 30% contractors. That is a sign of a more serious problem and these companies ought to think about alternative approaches."
Would you buy a used employee from a failed dotcom?
Dotcom failures are putting scarce skills back on to the market. But are they the people bricks-and-mortar employers would want to recruit? Apparently yes, at least in some cases. There are tales of staff from moribund start-ups being snapped up before the ink was even dry on their P45s.
Volt Europe's Jon Tyler says, "A lot of people from dotcoms are excellent, but are so unstructured that they should not be allowed near a business process. They may be brilliant but they cannot document or communicate. You have to look at each individual."
Both dotcom refugees and the employers who may recruit them may have some adjusting to do, if Richard Lloyd of Robert Walters is correct. "Particularly in investment banking, we saw a lot of strong candidates drop out of bluechips to go the dotcom route. Now that they are looking to get back into a more stable environment, they are having to reappraise their work ethic, having got used to the idea that it is cool to go to work in sandals and so forth. But if they want these people, bluechip employers may also have to review the working environment that they offer."