Technology: Get the right staff

With the e-commerce sector still overshadowed by a skills shortage, Danny Bradbury details how you can get the staff you need -...

With the e-commerce sector still overshadowed by a skills shortage, Danny Bradbury details how you can get the staff you need - and keep them

Theoretically, recruiting technical staff for your IT department should be a piece of cake. Promise them free pizza, luxury sandals and all-night dungeons and dragons games and you should be able to build yourself a team in no time. In reality, of course, things are different. It's true that the IT sector is in a downturn, (indeed, a recent report from the Recruitment and Employment Confederation revealed that the demand for IT jobs shrank for the first time in two years last May), But there is, nevertheless, a skills shortage. The e-Skills NTO (national training organisation), a government-recognised national training organisation focusing on IT skills, recently announced that the UK would need one million more IT workers in the next five years. Things look particularly bleak for companies with e-commerce projects - according to the REC survey, the heaviest demand in the IT sector was for C++ and Java programmers, who are precisely the people that e-commerce project managers need.

There are, however, some things that you can do to make recruitment easier and more effective. Poaching is a common practice in a skills-starved industry like IT, where human resources are limited. Many 'executive search and selection' (that's headhunter to you and me) companies are skilled in finding workers who suit your particular needs, and enticing them over with a mixture of pay packages and the promise of exciting projects. New or existing staff are a good source of new recruits here - it is not uncommon for members of staff to leave a company and take members of their team with them, for example.

Another way to pick up staff is by building social networks using electronic means. Taking some time to surf in the electronic newsgroups and technical bulletin boards will help you to pinpoint technical workers who can demonstrate a technical knowledge in their online dialogues. A good place to start here is the Compulink Information Exchange (CIX), a UK-focused online conferencing system with more than its fair share of tech-heads.

In your pursuit of skilled technical staff, working with recruitment agencies is also a good way to spread your net a bit wider. Such companies generally divide into body shops, which focus on volume at the expense of precision, and higher-end companies that will pre-qualify their contractors for you in more depth, carrying out interviews and building you a shortlist of people based on your needs. Choose the latter, but make sure that you can pay the high prices that they charge - often as much as a third of the recruit's first-year salary.

All of this will help you to find technical experts, but companies are like flowers, and workers are like bees - you have to show them something colourful to entice them inside. Good payment and benefits packages will always be attractive, but if possible you should appeal to potential recruits' creative sides and offer them stimulating projects where possible. Good succession planning, where you help them to map out a path through the organisation, will help you to retain your staff.

Offering a long-term career path within an organisation is also important in another sense; recruiting skilled technical staff is a great way to flesh out a technical team - but it's also akin to corporate in-breeding. With limited numbers of e-commerce-oriented IT professionals out there, the industry can be very incestuous, and poaching staff leads to high salaries.

A braver alternative is to make a long-term investment, taking on newcomers from outside the industry (science or language students, for example) and developing them from the ground up, training them so that you can mould their skills to suit your specific needs. Mentoring people with training and career planning will help you develop a workforce that is custom-made for your organisation.

Further information
E skills NTO:

If you're having trouble finding the staff that you need, or you're working on a short project and don't need technical expertise on a long-term basis, you might consider using contract staff. Contractors are commonly used by companies looking to reduce their fixed-cost base, because they're flexible and generally very knowledgeable. But be warned - while you don't have to pay benefits, holidays or sick pay to contract workers, you will generally find yourself paying double the wages of an equivalent full-time worker, on a pro-rata basis.

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