Whitebox skills shortage: quality not quantity?

Whitebox skills shortage: quality not quantity?


It's a classic Catch-22: IT retailers are faced with ever decreasing margins, and ever increasing customer expectations. The challenge is particularly strongly felt when it comes to recruiting and paying staff with the necessary skills and drive to work in PC manufacturing and sales.

Advertise for IT technicians in most Australian capitals and chances are you will be inundated with applications from IT wannabes that are long on qualifications but short on work ethics.

This is according to Safa Joumaa, general manager of sales and marketing at Altech Computers, among others.

Joumaa said IT manufacturing in Australia is not facing a skills shortage in term of people wanting to work in the industry, but more in terms of what those people are capable of and how hard they are willing to work.

"There isn't a staff shortage, but there is a quality shortage," Joumaa said. "We like to employ people with educational qualifications, but we are more interested in people with industry experience, because there are things that you can only pick up once you are building 400 systems a month."

Like most companies in the Australian IT manufacturing sector, Altech's preference is to recruit technicians with a minimum of 2-3 years industry experience. This leaves the industry fighting for a limited number of experienced staff while new graduates are left dangling.

According to the Federal Department of Education Science and Training, 18,800 students completed IT related courses in Vocational Education and Training (VET) institutions around Australia in 2002, with a further 2200 graduating from computer studies courses at universities.

However, local computer manufacturers point out that university graduates often have their sights set higher than local whitebox and custom-build shops, while student's from TAFE-style VET institutions lack the work ethic.

Richard Alexander, founder and CEO of Cougar Computers, said TAFEs provide good basic technical skills, but such institutions fail to prepare students for the challenges of the work environment.

"People coming out of TAFE tend to have an entitlement attitude, they want to work minimum hours for maximum pay," Alexander said. "We need people who are prepared to put in the hours."

While Alexander's preference is to employ university students part-time, he tends to lose them to larger organisations once they complete their studies.

"The challenge for us it to keep growing up the chain, and operating in more demanding markets so that we can keep good people once they are on board," Alexander said.

CTO of Hallmark Computers, Phil McIntosh, said the Melbourne-based PC manufacturer and IT distributor had not experienced any problems recruiting staff. But he admitted it was a problem for the industry as a whole n

"The PC assembly industry is notorious for underpaying its staff," McIntosh said. "You're dealing with the people who create the product on which your reputation is based. They need to know that they are an integral part of the company."

However, he does see a role for the industry to work with educational institutions in order to get graduates up to speed with the realities of working in PC manufacturing and sales.

"The PC manufacturing industry certainly needs to start working more closely with the universities and TAFEs to get graduates up to speed with industry requirements," McIntosh said. "There are too many IT professionals out there that don't understand the hardware side of things."

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