inside/out: Want People? Look Around

The top 10 U.S. metropolitan areas with the most high-tech jobs employ nearly 1.5 million people in these positions. Many more people are employed in similar jobs in the rest of the country, and still more perform certain high-tech functions as a collateral duty in small and medium sized companies.

No wonder, then, that there are job openings ready for anyone with the requisite skills. And there's the key word: requisite skills. A survey of 856 technical help-wanted ads in The Philadelphia Inquirer one recent Sunday found that the top six skill needs (covering more than 850 positions) were for people with skills in Visual Basic, Network, UNIX, NT, Oracle, and SQL.

Now we know there are not 850 people with these skills seeking a job in Philadelphia. Pirating an employee from another company -- perhaps the company that gave the person the skills in the first place -- will fill the majority of these positions. Fortunately, though, there are some other solutions being implemented that may help bridge the training gap and reduce the job-hopping.

In Philadelphia, a local consortium of technology companies has created a quick-response fund in conjunction with a university graduate campus. Schools have long been criticized for their slow response to teaching high-tech subjects. For both financial and bureaucratic reasons many find it impossible to be "light on their feet" in developing new, relevant technical courses. This fund acts as seed money to get the course developed quickly without waiting for budget funding, etc. Course participants and companies who benefit then rebuild the fund.

Another tack being taken by large high-tech employers is to create their own "universities." Employees take courses and improve their skills to meet changing needs within the company. The university concept also appeals to new hires that see the opportunity to build a career in the company as they increase their technical skills.

But there is another phenomenon taking place that can further help staff high-tech openings. This is the increasing pace of corporate layoffs in the face of a questionable 1999 economy in the United States. However, there is a perception problem that needs to be addressed first. This problem is one of pre-judging in the hiring process.

During the question/answer session at a presentation on filling high-tech job openings one individual said, "I've heard all the companies here talk about their needs, and about hiring college students and training them in house, but no one has talked about hiring the people who are older and seeking jobs. What about the over 40s?"

There was a brief, embarrassed silence, and then one person (an "under 40") who manages recruiting at a large high-tech firm responded, "We consider them, but for the most part they are not qualified, and many lack 'soft skills.' You know, they lack communication skills and they are not used to working in teams."

Those of us "over 40s" in the room were astonished. How could an individual who has worked in business for 20 years be accused of lacking "soft skills?" How could such a person have kept a job for so long? Yet this manager's opinion is understandable. In the early 80's I managed the recruiting for an IBM sales region. We primarily sought college students because they were "bright-eyed and bushy-tailed," were eager to get ahead, and were anxious to learn. We also considered others who had come from the workforce and were applying to IBM as part of a career change.

Aside from IBM's unique culture, which some older hires found difficult, adding these experienced people into the mix of mostly twenty-somethings was generally a positive step. They brought a degree of wisdom and judgment that new college grads often lack. Furthermore, after interviewing hundreds and hundreds of college seniors as well as many older job seekers, the percentage of college students lacking soft skills, as the recruiting manager put it, is at least as great as those from the ranks of business unemployed.

No, it's not soft skills in the applicants; it's soft headedness in the recruiters. It's a lot easier to hire someone younger than you are, and to hire "in your own image." It's easy to let the "halo effect" of the image of a young, exuberant college kid sway a hiring decision away from the mature applicant and towards the younger candidate.

Companies serious about filling high-tech openings need to be sure the managers evaluating candidates are 1) comfortable hiring and managing people older than themselves, and 2) do not allow themselves to fall into stereotype traps. Employee loyalty among the young may be a thing of the past, and older, laid-off people may have learned that only they are responsible for their career, but to favor one group over the other is shortsighted and unfair. There are pros and cons in either case.

Our industry has a staffing problem. This is the time to exploit every opportunity to solve it and not let preconceived notions get in the way of good, sound judgment.

After 18 years in marketing and sales at IBM, Bob Diefenbacher founded Denbrook Systems Associates, an IT consulting firm based in Malvern, Pa.