Integrators working to train and retain

The skills shortage continues to cause havoc across the IT industry, with spiralling salaries a major concern. In an attempt to tackle this ongoing problem, several integrators are trialling innovative ways of training and retaining personnel.

Southern Cross Computer Systems (SCCS) managing director, Mark Kalmus, said the skills shortage was causing everybody's prices to go up.

"You have to weigh up how much you want them against how much you are prepared to pay for them," he said. According to a quarterly survey conducted by Hays Specialist Recruitment last month, the biggest winners during the past year were network designers, whose pay packets increased by an average of $20,000 to $105,000 in Brisbane, and by $15,000 to $95,000 in Perth. The same role attracted an average salary of $110,000 in Melbourne and Sydney.

Sought-after skills also included developer expertise in Microsoft .Net and Java, as well as infrastructure desktop management. Not surprisingly, virtualisation, VoIP and systems management server skills are in higher demand than ever.

3D managing director, Chris Luxford, said skilled staff were in the ultimate position of power. Although Commander's operational crisis and its recent retrenchments have seen hundreds of IT workers enter the job market, integrators agree it doesn't fix the long-term skills crisis.

"We've still got a shortage, particularly for Nortel skills but also in Cisco. It's right across the salary bands from junior to senior level," Luxford said. "We've managed to plug lots of holes with Commander staff, but if we continue on our growth path, we won't be able to find people in the next 2-3 months."

One way to temper the issue is to develop skills in-house. 3D is one of several integrators running its own graduate and apprenticeship program. This has already added three staff to its roll.

Luxford said the company planned to spend the next six months fi ne-tuning the program and eventually hoped to take 6-10 graduates every year.

SCCS is also proactively going after graduates and is working with third-party organisation, ProGrad, which specialises in delivering sales and marketing staff. The organisation also provides training support to placed candidates for one year. SCCS has hired one sales and one marketing staffer so far.

"The graduate program's definitely the way to go for non-core parts of the business," Kalmus said.

Data#3 general manager, Laurence Baynham, said the Queensland-based integrator is working with Microsoft on a graduate program. While finding graduates was one solution, he said, retaining current staff was vital.

"As a company we have developed other strategies and we are ramping up investments in things like benefit programs, training and professional development to put greater focus on growing our existing people," he said

Former Alphawest managing director, Garry Henley, attributed the shortage of skilled workers to the decline in university graduates and falling interest in the industry since the dotcom boom.

"People stopped going through university during the dotcom explosion - now we're seeing the lack of people in IT because they're not coming out the other side," he said.

Australian Information Industry Association (AIIA) CEO, Sheryle Moon, said the skills shortage continued to be significant. As an example, she highlighted a rise in localised outsourcing by Canberra-based organisations that could not access adequate IT skills.

Moon said it was too early to tell if there had been any improvement in university enrolment numbers this year but the AIIA, as well as vendors like Cisco and IBM, have been crafting outreach programs to boost interest in IT.

But while getting students into IT university courses is one thing, there are still concerns that graduates don't have the people or business skills required to enter the workforce. According to the Hays survey, there's increasing demand for IT candidates that also have people management skills alongside technical abilities. Moon said other skills in high demand included program and project managers as well as business analysts.

One of the AIIA's recent initiatives focused on ensuring international students who graduate from Australian universities had adequate English skills and "business ethics" to go into the local industry, Moon said.

"It's never been just about the technical skills," she said. "We're running programs subsequent to university that get these graduates into the workforce and make them attractive in the industry."