Even the most optimistic IT observers are not trying to pretend that the recession will end before 2003.
But they might suggest that there is a positive side to the situation: at least no one can complain about a skills shortage anymore, with hundreds of people sending in CVs for every vacancy.
They would be wrong. "It is still incredibly difficult to recruit people with the right mix of technical skills and commercial experience," says Bernie Dodwell, sales and marketing director at distributor Allasso.
And he has it easy in comparison with some people, claims Terry Watts, chief operating officer of training organisation e-skills UK. "Even in this market, you'll have a real struggle on your hands to find people with good C++, C# and Java skills. The NT skills market is also still highly competitive," he says.
So if you're looking for someone with a mixture of these technical skills and a professional approach to commerce, you had better think again.
That's nothing, claims Kiran Rana, training manager at training provider CraneTec. If you want a real challenge try recruiting someone who understands both voice and data communications and also has a realistic understanding of how these will affect clients' businesses.
There are plenty of other areas in which expertise is at a premium and the gap between supply and demand has not created the high wages that help to fill such a vacuum.
Sometimes, in the more obscure areas, such as storage standards, this vacuum effectively kills off the market opportunity before it can be exploited. In any emerging market there is almost certainly a group of people complaining bitterly that you can't get the staff, even these days.
If there is a common element to all these pockets of skills shortage, it's that commercial nous is rarely married to technical understanding.
According to Dodwell, there's probably no shortage of people with technical skills, at least not where Allasso operates.
"There are a lot of people who understand technology now, or they know all the features of a product or a system. But often they don't understand how to present themselves in a commercial environment," he says.
Surely making them wear a suit and brush their hair is fairly straightforward?
"It's not that," says Dodwell. "It is more likely that they don't know what a margin is, for example, or they don't know the value of what they are doing. "They won't recognise that, say, configuring something for a client should be something that earns a fee. So they might end up doing something that doesn't make us as much money as we could make.
"There are a lot of people who are interested in technology for its own sake but do not seem to appreciate that our need to earn fees is the biggest priority."
Technical understanding, not techies
You would think that in the current market, in which some of the hardest lessons about commerce are being dealt out, most people would be aware of this. Not so, says Dodwell.
When Allasso restructured its sales force in June, the rationale was to provide better support to its accounts by deepening the level of product knowledge, and matching that to commercial understanding.
"We had too many people who knew all about their accounts but we couldn't offer the right knowledge of what the products actually do. We wanted technical understanding, not techies," he says.
To get the right mix of skills, Allasso had to lay off five people and recruit seven others. Re-training technical people was not workable. Although it received thousands of CVs from just a singe local advertising campaign, in the end the skills gap seems to have been filled by poaching staff from other companies, such as Computer 2000.
Poaching staff has always been a more practical alternative to training as a way of finding the right skills. Why spend a fortune on training people when they will go to the highest payer as soon as they pass their exams?
But even poaching is not much of an option these days. Simon Clark, managing director of technology marketing firm Katapult-IT, says: "Nobody's moving around much at the moment.
"Anyone competent won't; it's too dangerous out there. There's a massive gap between what many companies tell you when you join, and the reality that sets in later. They promise you the moon but they end up giving you your P45 instead."
It is arguable that the skills shortage will always be with us and, rather than complain about it, the channel should set about ruthlessly exploiting it.
Periodically, for example, the government of the day will throw millions of pounds at an exercise aimed at convincing the electorate that they are au fait with what Harold Wilson described as "the white heat of technology".
They then set about recruiting companies that claim they can train people in the fashionable IT skills of the moment.
In the 1990s, for example, a training company could get £1,000 a week per candidate for a 12-week course for up to 40 trainees hoping to pick up fourth-generation programming skills (the Java of its day).
Never mind that the training consisted of a retired Cobol programmer, who knew nothing about 4G, sitting and reading from a manual for eight hours a day.
Plenty of money if you know where to find it
There is plenty of money available from government agencies to fund training; you just have to know where to apply for it.
These days, however, any interested parties will have to provide a much more professional service, since the training agencies are much more clued up, thanks to people like Terry Watts, the chief operating officer at e-skills UK.
This government-sponsored organisation collects intelligence from vendors including Microsoft, Dell and Oracle, as well as information on the expertise they need from the IT managers of companies like J Sainsbury, John Lewis, Morgan Stanley and BA. The idea is to help the government make sensible policy decisions about IT education.
Watts admits it is a lot to expect this to make any impact straightaway.
"Often the educators and the IT industry speak a different language. What we're doing is improving the perception of IT, with the help of vendors," he says.
"Dell, for example, is involved in a scheme that takes kids into offices, and sends company employees into schools to talk about careers in IT."
This is all very well, but such initiatives rely on long-term projections of workforce needs. When these kids grow up we may be trying to persuade them out of IT and into biotechnology.
What about today's workforce, and today's IT shortages? The IT industry prides itself on being creative solution providers; what 'blue-sky' thinking has e-skills put into finding new answers to an old problem? "We need to encourage more women into IT," says Watts.
Not that old chestnut, snorts Clark. "Has anyone bothered asking women if they really want to work in IT?" he asks. "Maybe they don't, and who could blame them? After all these years of getting nowhere on this, maybe we need to think of some new perspectives. Perhaps trying to shoehorn women into IT is not the right answer."
Still, at Allasso 22 staff out of 31 are women. "They are less aggressive, better listeners and pay more attention to detail," says Dodwell. "And no, it's not because we can pay them less. The IT industry isn't like that."
Meanwhile, the shortage of skills seems to be getting worse. According to Watts, the IT industry has started to reach maturity. You might imagine that is a good thing, making people less likely to skip jobs or to treat their employer as a training ground.
The downside is that organisations such as IBM, Oracle and Microsoft no longer act as universities for smaller companies.
"It used to be accepted that people would stay at one company for five years and then go off and do their own thing. Now employers need to make better use of their staff, so they try to hang on to them," says Watts.
Nor do the real universities seem to be doing much to help small companies find the skilled staff they need. Education has never been geared towards helping IT, since everything moves too fast for colleges to plan a curriculum round the changing fashions that sweep the industry.
One of the big problems for resellers trying to skill up their workforce is that, even if they had the money to invest in training, and were confident that their staff wouldn't leave immediately for a better paid job elsewhere, it is difficult to find the time for training.
Rana says one of the big obstacles to training is that companies have to take staff out of circulation and put them in a classroom for five days. That means they are not earning any money, which makes training an even more expensive business.
Surely there must be a creative solution to this. What about evening classes? "Sadly, we live in a world where people will not give their own time to acquiring skills," says Rana.
He also believes that video streaming, which has been touted as a means of delivering training to the masses on a budget, will not live up to its promise.
"I have very strong views on that. You can't learn anything other than the basics with those sorts of methods. Our courses are all hands-on. You can't replace the learning process of breaking down and assembling kit," he says.
It all sounds quite grim; nobody seems to have any ideas about meeting the skills crisis. The only fresh perspective is that it seems to be getting worse.
Distributors as skills service providers?
However, Antony Young, partner services manager at distributor OpenPSL, seems to have hit on a new idea. He says high-premium skills should be rented out as a service.
"Many organisations that have released highly paid, highly skilled specialists may be a little reluctant to employ such people in future. I think there is an excellent opportunity for specialist services distributors like us to fill this gap by providing high-level, high-value skills on a 'one-to-many' basis, obtaining the utilisation needed to justify the costs incurred," says Young.
OpenPSL sells these consultants. It does so in such a way that resellers can still make up to 40 per cent margin on market rates, which they argue makes it a viable and attractive alternative to building a specialist service in-house.
"I think even the major vendors such as Hewlett Packard are recognising that this is the way forward and are encouraging distributors to develop in this way. Many services will start to follow the distribution models that have operated in product sales for many years," Young says.
As the market picks up, he says he is happy to help channel partners to rebuild their services team by shadowing OpenPSL on these implementations.
At least his company has come up with some fresh thinking. Otherwise, in, an industry supposed to be full of creative solutions providers, there appears to be a dearth of new ideas to tackle a very old problem.
- Even during a slowdown there are still staff shortages in many areas.
- Skilled techies with commercial sense are a rarity.
- In 20 years, the IT industry has come up with few creative solutions to the skills shortage.
- An increase in government-funded training offers some opportunities.
- Women are reluctant to be shoehorned into the IT industry as a solution to its recruitment problems.
- OpenPSL has a new idea: distributors should become skills service providers.
TROUBLE AT THE TOP
Staff are not responsible for the skills shortage, it's the managers, complains one IT veteran.
Chris Herman is an engineer who worked for companies such as Honeywell before moving into mainstream IT and associated sales. Having run his own business successfully for 10 years, he wanted to make a change and started looked for a suitable job.
Someone with proven business nous, IT and programming knowledge and communications marketing skills would have no trouble, surely?
"Frankly, no," says Herman. "When I was looking for work two years ago, the chaos and incompetence I saw first-hand sometimes left me speechless. I doubt that one in five managers I saw is capable of boiling water competently, let alone thinking up and implementing creative solutions to anything.
"Half of them couldn't even organise a job interview effectively. I walked away from more than one company because they were so shambolic, I couldn't even begin to contemplate working there. In one case, I was told I had the job subject only to a final vetting interview with someone to whom I was supposedly going to report.
Two months later they still couldn't organise what they called the 'rubber-stamping interview'. In the end I told them not to bother."
Herman says managers are to blame for the lack of skills in their companies.
"I doubt that the vast majority of managers would even recognise someone was competent for a job if they didn't have all the right boxes ticked. Yet these same people will go on about how dangerous such assessments are when comparing technologies.
"And most managers hate the thought of employing someone with anything remotely approaching commercial and technological competence because they are scared witless of being shown up. The older I get, the more convinced I become that to be successful in this life is dependent upon being just the right level of mediocre."
As a company doctor once said, 90 per cent of managers are merely maintainers. All they can do is maintain the status quo. That could explain why nothing has ever been done about the skills crisis.
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