Small and mid-sized companies (SMEs) are struggling to attract IT talent in the face of competition from big-name employers.
But as long as they listen to what people actually want from a job, they will succeed in attracting good IT staff, according to members of a round table held by IT education supplier RM.
The culture of the company matters for today's generation of IT job seekers, said Gideon Kay, IT director at Haden Building Management. "Young people can come from an open university culture to what feels like an IT prison. That is not the culture they want."
Alexandra Sheriden, team manager at Elan IT, said compamies do not think about the impression they are creating. "The company really has to sell to the candidate now. Salary is one thing, but it is also about holidays, pensions and even membership to a gym helps. Everything counts, from the receptionist's manner when they come in for an interview to how long it takes HR to send out the job-offer paperwork."
Meurig Beynon, from the computer science department at Warwick University, said, "Young people do not want to be put in a niche and told what they are doing. They want challenges."
Companies can take certain steps to overcome the current skills shortage. RM, an education software and hardware supplier, is recruiting in Poland and has set up a website where potential candidates can ask current staff questions. They also have a virtual tour around the offices on the website. Vince Naylor, a network and IT systems manager at Snowdrop Systems, said he has started taking some post A-level students on. He said that the company takes plenty of non-IT graduates. "We look a lot at personality and mindset rather than technical skill."
Beynon said guest lecturing at universities is a good way to get students' attention, and Tilly Travers, from E-Skills UK, said taking students for industry placements during their degree is a cost-effective way for smaller companies to attract graduates to work with them.
But the consensus is that the onus is on the company to become a place where people want to work. IT professionals want to be both listened to and challenged, and they want to see how IT will take them to the top. Mike Rodd, director of learned society at the British Computer Society, said it is possible to learn from the bigger companies such as Oracle.
"They just asked people what they want," he said. "What matters to employees is life-balance and green issues. So they provide buses for people to get into work, they provide family care and everything needed for career support."
Although businesses can work to counteract the problems caused by the skills shortage, what really matters to employees is the perception of the IT industry, and how it is regarded in terms of professionalism, Kay said.
"Until IT has got to the point where it is a recognised profession, people will see it as a gamble. There is still a huge amount of work to be done, both in the UK and globally. We need people to see it as a career that will take them to the top of organisations. That is what will attract people," she said.
E-Skills UK is working with school children and university students to change IT's image, and Mike Rodd reported progress in the quest for professionalism in the industry. But for the time being, companies will need to compete for scarce talent with a mixture of ingenious recruiting methods and attractive packages and policies, Alexandra Sheriden said.
"Candidates are now getting two to three job offers on the table. Who they choose does not necessarily come down to money, but the idea they have of your company," she said.