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Future networks

The people problem

Although the local integration market is undoubtedly buoyant at the moment, and has been for some time, life is still far from being a bed of roses for the senior management teams running those businesses. Competition is fierce and winning contracts is not easy. To make matters worse, there is a well-documented skills shortage that makes attracting the right people tough and retaining them next to impossible. Our panel of industry experts debated this issue at a recent ARN round table.

There can be little doubt that this is a good time to be an IT network engineer. Skills that commanded a salary of $80,000 not long ago are now in extremely high demand and regularly attract packages at least 50 per cent higher.

"We have committed to training our staff for years in various areas of business, but it is a problem that we all spend a lot of money training guys and they get poached," Somerville Group's Craig Somerville said. "Anybody who stands next to an engineer for a day in a work environment will hear a recruiter calling at least once or twice.

"That pressure is on them all the time and the problem is that it's so easy for them to make a move because certifications go with them. We need to work together to find a solution."

Of course, unemployment is at its lowest level for many years and IT is not the only industry suffering a skills shortage. But the problem in IT is exacerbated by very well-defined training requirements.

"When I look at our two different businesses, which are poles apart, the electrical and communications business has structure, standards, awards and all of these things that you can gauge people on when you employ them," Somerville said. "In the IT business, everybody in this room is struggling when it comes to getting guys with cross-skills. That is a long-term problem and I don't know how we are going to get out of it without an industry association getting together and working towards building structure."

The need for partnerships One of the biggest problems is that the growing need for specialisation is making it increasingly impossible for most integrators to provide end-to-end solutions. As a result, there is a growing acceptance of the need to partner with companies that would have been thought of as competitors in the past.

ComputerCorp's Tony Heywood recently attended a Cisco conference in the Gold Coast, where he said the vendor talked ad nauseum about an inflection point in the market that meant integrators could no longer consider themselves 'the Cisco guy'. Instead, partners were encouraged to pick a specialisation and hone their skills in that area.

"If we do our bit really well, we get high utilisation of our resources and good customer penetration that is vertically independent," he said. "We cannot be all things to all people but there's no longer any customer expectation that you are going to be able to do everything."

Signing on the dotted line One way of tackling the staff retention problem, according to Telarus' Jules Rumsey, would be to put engineers on contracts that stipulate anybody leaving within a certain timeframe is required to pay back a percentage of the training costs that have been incurred by their employer. But, at the end of the day, he argued it was part of a manager's job to make sure skilled employees were retained.

"We take people at the most junior level possible and take them right through the organisation so they have a real sense of ownership in the company," he said. "They become an important part of the machine and they know it."

But Rumsey said the current skills shortage meant integrators were being forced to hire staff that they wouldn't have even considered for the same positions 10 years ago.

"People talk about tertiary education but that doesn't even come into it these days with a lot of the people you are trying to hire," he said. "You have somebody who is straight out of school or has been to TAFE and decided to zone in on a particular area where there's a key skill set."

The grass roots approach The problem of finding good staff and keeping them is so bad, according to Alphawest's Ed Jeffers, that employee retention has now replaced growth as his company's number one strategic objective. Issues exist at both ends of the scale, he said, with baby boomers retiring and IT graduates declining by 40 per cent for the past three years.

Emerson's Peter Spiteri said it has created an apprenticeship program with a number of TAFEs that offers electrical mechanical coursework. The idea is to build a base of precision air and power skills in the market that traditional IT integrators will be able to draw on.

"Why would somebody with a computer science background understand mechanical and electrical engineering considerations like power factor correction and sensible heat ratio?" he said. "You can't just pick it up. To understand thermal dynamics you have got to do the hard yards."

Similarly, Cisco runs a Network Academy Program designed to seed the bottom end of the skills market. However, Efficient Data's Andrew Lowy said he had hired people out of the academy and found they were not ready.

Somerville said the problem with graduates coming out of academies was that they might have technical ability but lacked the customer skills necessary to be a top engineer. While investing in graduates and school leavers was the ideal way to build a skills base, he argued this was becoming increasingly difficult because young people today were driven by rapid change and no longer interested in long-term employment.

He also said recruiters were a problem because they would often try to put a round peg in a square hole in order to earn commission. As an example, he cited an agency that put forward three candidates for a sales position - two of the candidates were below standard but he had hired the third, who had little or no interest in a sales role, as a Java code-cutter.

A fundamental change in relationships Partnering with other integrators, making employees sign contracts relating to training spend and improving education will all have some impact on the dearth of skills in the industry. But Jeffers called for a fundamental shift in the way vendors work with systems integrators.

"The idea that it's a privilege [for integrators to sell vendor products] has got to change because it's not the case. There are not enough people out there for you to cover the market and yet I have difficulty getting vendors to come in and proactively deliver training," he said.

"There needs to be a collaborative understanding that we all have the same problem. I have 700 people and you don't so how do we make that work? I'm going to sell products other than yours but you need to have some faith that I'm going to represent you properly.

"Not only do you need to help us get the skills in place but, and here's the real big issue, you have to help us keep them. We go out and spend $100,000 to get a Cisco engineer at the level we need and for an extra $20,000 somebody pinches them. I get no credit back from the vendor for having made that investment.

"OK that's the cost of doing business, I understand and I'm not complaining, but we need to cooperate and figure out a way to keep the IP where it needs to be. Without that IP, I'm not going to sell your product."


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