Why develop when you can poach?

At a time when SA is in dire need of IT skills, the industry is recycling the same people instead of growing the pool of experts.
By Kaunda Chama, ITWeb features editor
Johannesburg, 10 Jul 2006

With the exception of a handful of companies that are making genuine efforts to develop new skills, the majority of ICT companies and their partners need to do much more with regard to investing in and developing human capital.

The develop versus acquire challenge is a tough one. As companies are in business to make a profit, they need the best skills to remain competitive. The conundrum is whether to go the quick-fix route and headhunt skills from competitors, or play a more active role by developing skills.

The easy approach seems to prevail - when there is a skill requirement, companies tap into the small pool of existing IT talent.

Carl Raath, technical director of Torque-IT, believes this dilemma exists in most industries to a greater or lesser degree, but is more prevalent in the IT sector due to the pace at which it is moving and changing, and companies are required to offer solutions using the latest technology.

A major driver is the need for companies to get their equity numbers in order. Mteto Nyati, IBM SA`s director of global technology services, says with the lack of black skills in certain IT disciplines, poaching is something companies will have to learn to live with for a while, and even plan for.

Even companies training and developing their staff and going as far as developing career paths for them, still run the risk of losing them to competitors, says Nyati.

"That people are not staying in their jobs long enough to make a meaningful impact is leaving the sector with individuals who lack depth, even at the age of 40," he adds.

Withhold certification

The headhunting or poaching practice has given rise to another problem: some companies under-train staff or withhold the opportunity for certification out of fear that they could quickly be snapped up by a competitor.

"More often than not we are reactive rather than proactive, due to the pace and expectations associated with our industry," he says.

Raath says Torque-IT has seen a significant decline in technical training in the past 18 months. This illustrates the lack of foresight of many big players, especially since many of them report their businesses are experiencing positive growth and an increase in demand for their products and services.

The sad reality is that poaching is a local as well as an international trend.

Bryan Hattingh, CEO, Cycan

"The excuse that I hear most often pertains to time constraints experienced by overworked technical staff and the perceived high cost of training," he says.

Bryan Hattingh, CEO of Cycan, says the sad reality is that with the global shortage of skills and the fact that poaching is a local as well as an international trend, training institutions will never be able to fill the skills gap.

He says organisations that lose staff often blame the loss on poaching and on the shortage of skills in the market. Then they get a replacement employee by doing some poaching of their own, which does nothing to address the root cause of the problem.

"Because a lot of companies do not concentrate on developing their own capacity, they are sometimes to blame for the disservice done to them by their employees," Hattingh comments.

However, he says training for the sake of training does not create employment - skills development that is in line with market needs is certainly a big step in the right direction.

Gordon Frazer, Microsoft SA MD, says he applauds the efforts made by government to skill the sector, but comments that although it could do more, this is not its sole responsibility.

Building capacity

Nkosinathi Khumalo, a director at EOH, says local poaching has prevailed because many ISETT SETA initiatives have failed to deliver proper capacity building.

"The intention of these learnerships is good, but a lot of companies have simply used them to get a tick in the box for previously disadvantaged individual (PDI) numbers and social responsibility initiatives," notes Khumalo.

He adds the retention of individuals who have gone through these learnerships has been less than 10%. Companies that have done well have been those with in-house academies that recruit graduates, like IBM and Oracle.

"Some people spend six months in these learnerships and gain no specific IT skills, just general IT skills, and are no more marketable than when they started," he says.

According to Khumalo, proper capacity building involves having graduates at a company`s academy for at least 18 months - and making sure that even at the training stage, they are fully integrated into the company`s core business.

He says poaching has its advantage in that it forces employers to set up staff retention programmes that benefit the employees in the long run.

However, he warns that both headhunters and the headhunted should guard against setting themselves up for failure.

"For example, a company will poach a sales manager and make him a sales director with all the attractive perks that come with the position, but the person might be too 'green` for the position and fail to excel," Khumalo comments.

Changing trends

Ivor Rimmer, MD of Bateleur Resourcing, says his company has not seen too much evidence of poaching recently. "I believe the high staff-turnover rates in the IT industry are largely attributable to employees who understand their marketability," he says.

According to him, companies are becoming increasingly aware of the need to retain valuable staff members, as anyone with skills that are in demand could be a target. At the same time, there is a pool of black professionals who have confidence in their skills and their ability to double their salaries whenever they choose.

That people are not staying in their jobs long enough to make a meaningful impact is leaving the sector with individuals who lack depth, even at the age of 40.

Mteto Nyati, director of global technology services, IBM SA

"Some of these people take advantage of the situation by moving jobs, say, every six months. Once this has been done by the same individual two or three times, however, companies become reluctant to take them on, as even the best employee typically only becomes productive after the first six months," Rimmer says.

In the recruitment game, he adds, there has always been the risk of losing highly skilled contractors to permanent employment. "These people have to go onto client sites, where they are frequently enticed to join the client organisation as permanent staff. With the necessity of demonstrating their BEE status as part of today`s business world, many organisations are now finding themselves faced with a similar dilemma. They are compelled to put their top-notch black professionals in touch with clients and suppliers while fully understanding the risk of having them poached.

"This has created a rather uneven playing field. The objective of BEE was to uplift sufficient numbers of PDIs; in reality, the cream of the crop is circulating through the industry and naming their price. There is a dire need to recreate the trainee pool, as many companies are focusing strongly on hiring at the top end - directors, owners, shareholders and managers - as this is the most efficient way to meet BEE quotas," he explains.

As a result, there is scant emphasis on solid grounding and developing skills at lower levels. This does little to address the unemployment problem, as the main drive is to find experienced skills.

According to Rimmer, SA`s chronic IT skills shortage exists on two levels. The first challenge is finding the right skills; the second is the need to have good black skills.

Missing skills

The most dire shortage is of skilled managers - whether they be general managers or project managers - and it needs to be addressed creatively if the industry is to find a long-term solution, says Esme Smith, CSC SA`s training and development manager.

She says there`s especially demand for managers who can do more than their day-to-day, operational job. "For example, to be an effective project manager you need more than `technical` skills. Effective managers know how to deal with conflict and are able to facilitate a common vision, deal with a range of stakeholder agendas and motivate a team," she says.

New blood is necessary, along with the energy, expertise and ideas that come with it.

Gordon Frazer, MD, Microsoft SA

Project management, Smith adds, is about more than following an action plan. It requires an ability to manage complexity and be able to combine this ability with more general people management and specific technical skills.

She believes several existing management-training programmes don`t equip managers to address these issues.

"Managers need to be equipped with a set of skills that will allow them to accurately determine today`s business requirements and then create a solution that delivers on these requirements. These skills add a different dimension to a manager`s abilities by allowing the manager to identify 'what`s missing` and come up with creative, workable ideas."

According to Raath, on the technical side, telephony skills, especially in the VOIP space, are scarce and in demand, while IT security, software development, networking and open source specialists follow close behind.

The impending ICT skills gap represents a massive challenge requiring new approaches to skills development, says Dot Field, Vodacom`s chief of communications.

Mending the skills gap

Field says Vodacom has identified the lack of women in technology roles as one of the great challenges in overcoming skills shortages in this sector. In April, Vodacom launched the Graduate Programme for Females in Technology - a three-year sponsorship programme inspired by the achievements of women in the business and telecommunications industry.

However, not only people at graduate level are being developed. From 1 July, the company will provide workplace experience to more than 270 learners through the ISETT SETA. This initiative helps learners gain workplace experience and enriches the ICT sector`s recruitment pool and skills development at an entry level, it says.

<B>What is government doing?</B>

The government, in partnership with IT companies, runs annual learnership programmes, endorsed and supported by the ISETT SETA.

These learnerships are vocational education and training programmes that combine theory and practice and culminate in a qualification that is recognised nationwide and is registered on the National Qualifications Framework (NQF).
The government sources funds for these learnerships by making every IT company operating within SA contribute 1% of its payroll to ISETT SETA. The companies get 50% of this money back if they run an education initiative themselves.
For example, distribution company Axiz, which set up a learnership last year, says ISETT SETA funds the cost of the training, transport and allowances for the learners involved. The SETA grants Axiz R80 000 per learner per year.
A condition of the ISETT SETA`s approval of the learnership is that all candidates meet three basic criteria:
a) They must be currently unemployed.
b) They must be between the ages of 18 and 25.
c) They must already hold a minimum of an NQF level four qualification or similar, such as an N+ or A+.
The learnership involves the provision of training and workplace experience in alternating periods. The Axiz learners receive two months of training followed by two months in the working environment on a rotational basis. In total, they spend 120 days in training and 115 days in the workplace.

"Bridging the gap between theoretical education and skills training requires close co-operation between education and training providers as well as employers," says Field.

Torque-IT`s Raath, on the other hand, believes training alone is not the answer to the skills shortage in the sector.

"I believe the true solution is a hybrid. There is no substitute for the experience that a long-time employee can offer: knowing and understanding the particular environment, the culture, the specific requirements, dynamics and relationships.

"Often a new employee, regardless of their skill level, will take longer to perform a customer-specific task than a skilled long-time employee," comments Raath.

Microsoft SA`s Frazer says: "In an ideal world, it would be great for all companies to train and develop their own people, but sometimes everyone needs short-term solutions and that`s when poaching makes sense. As a country that needs to sustain growth, we do not have the luxury of waiting for all our skills to develop."

He notes that projects like the Gautrain and infrastructure for the 2010 Soccer World Cup also contribute to companies seeking short-term solutions.

However, Frazer comments, new blood is necessary, along with the energy, expertise and ideas that come with it.

Increasing the amount of trained staff will also take the perceived power from the skilled few and almost certainly bring the salary expectations of these individuals to a more realistic and sustainable level.