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Finding & keeping IT talent

01 Nov 2011

Coming through what is proving to be the second biggest economic depression the world has seen since the 1920’s, we are finding enormous impacts on employment and employees in New Zealand. Yet, our IT and Telecommunications sector has fared better than many.The New Zealand IT sector ran into the slowdown with enormous skill shortages, which initially helped to buffer the impacts on those who were in fulltime employment, and also to a large extent the contract labour pool. However, by mid-2008 things were beginning to turn, and with retail in disarray and property and finance being the trigger for much of the sustained losses, the market began to slow dramatically.  Over the last four years, from mid 2007 to present day, we have found buoyant pockets of employment and a much more depressing picture in other segments.Employers are looking for employees who are able to ‘do more with less’ and who get on and deliver. New Zealand was to a large extent very effectively buffered from the impact of the financial crisis, simply because of our export markets being Asian focused, rather than strongly directed at the US and Europe – but that hasn’t assisted our retail segments. With a very large retail-directed project grinding to a halt in late 2008, a pool of around 200 contractors and ‘in-company’ employees flooded onto the market in Auckland, just ahead of Christmas. Many of them were still job hunting in June of ’09.Companies have sought to do much more of their recruitment directly, without using agencies or consulting companies, although this has only been partly successful. With Government, both central and local, continuing to spend and initiate IT projects, the work has been there, but always harder to secure, and always with a big emphasis on the price and the value delivered.Permanent employees, safely ensconced in a company in a necessary role, have hunkered down and stayed put. Being grateful to have some certainty, many have sailed quite happily through the difficult times. However, in our own experiences, backed up by media reports, we would estimate 50-75% of permanent IT employees would be open to attend a job interview, with 25% actively seeking a new role, and the balance indicating they would like to hear about new opportunities.Employers don’t seem to be battling for employee retention at the moment. There is perhaps a level of either complacency or acceptance, as the European markets hiccup again, and their staff reconsider their appetite for risk, in looking outside their safe moorings.Dearth and glutAreas of the market particularly affected over the last four years have shown up in the dearth of available sales and marketing positions, a glut of available project management resource, as well as in the ability to choose the quality delivery people in the market, rather than having to accept a more humdrum performance.The recruitment companies have most definitely suffered, with many of the small one-man-band Auckland recruiters disappearing altogether, and the large companies dialling back significantly. Advertising, online and in the print media, fell to a fraction of its levels in early ’07. But the roles were still there, just a bit harder to hunt down.One well-trodden path for IT people, many of whom have enjoyed years of good earning potential, was to take the opportunity to study for degrees or certifications, or take time out to travel, as the costs of doing fell significantly.  High levels of change – the creation of the "Supercity” and the strength of the dairy industry – have meant that SAP professionals haven’t had much difficulty finding work, whether as a contractor or as a permanent employee. So the most noticeable shift in the labour market has really been people’s attitude to the degree of risk that they will take to on-going employment.Tracing the trendsTrends over the last four years, particularly for the Auckland, Hamilton and Wellington markets, have included:

  • The drift to public sector projects in Australia, and the return back across the Tasman in the last 12 months.
  • Retraining and up-skilling by employees, utilising their periods of unemployment to become more marketable.
  • On-going skills shortages for SAP Functional Consultants.
  • A glut of project management skills, even amongst those with PMI and associated industry qualifications.
  • A slowing of immigration from traditional sources of IT professionals
  • An inclination on the part of employees to "choose local knowledge”. In the melting pot that is the technology sector, this has nothing whatsoever to do with ethnicity, but is all about people with five years or more working on New Zealand projects with local teams.
  • An aversion to the use of agencies, until the sheer volume of response from applicants has made the filtering to a quality shortlist a worthwhile investment.
The Christchurch quake has more recently brought a pool of "earthquake refugees” into the North Island markets, as ongoing uncertainty and weariness from the daily shaking sends families to find other homes.Going forward, employers are flooding back to the consulting companies and the recruitment agencies who deliver real results. We are already seeing significant skills shortages in SAP resources, in some verticals within technical engineering disciplines and, as always, in skilled and competent technical helpdesk professionals.  Geographically, New Zealand’s fourth largest city, Hamilton, is struggling to fill some types of roles with a dearth of willing applicants, and the North Island companies are generating sales, marketing and account management roles once again.Choose wiselyAdvertising numbers are growing in the sector, with Facebook and LinkedIn becoming bigger players in the attempt to attract talent directly to employers or to agencies.The better agencies are able to go straight to their databases for high calibre candidates for the employers, so the "invisible vacancies” would currently outnumber those advertised by two-to-one.  Candidates are choosing stability, certainty, and safety over those key drivers of ’06 and ’07 where interesting work, variety, benefits and flexible time were essential attractants to fill roles. However, they are using change, and a new role, to gain the pay increase that they haven’t been able to get from their current employer, so churn is very slowly increasing.  Whereas a year ago an employee moving on to another role often wasn’t replaced, and the work was absorbed into the team, now most employers are replacing immediately. If they find themselves unable to pay more, they are taking on slightly more junior candidates.It is a very gently improving market for employees, and a slowly tightening one for the majority of employers, unless you are in the skill shortage areas, in which case agencies are actively chasing willing potential immigrants for you from the UK, Europe and to a lesser degree the US. The previously large numbers of skilled migrants from South Africa have slowed almost to a standstill, and the number of returning Kiwis from the UK and Europe are increasing in leaps and bounds.In this market employees don’t want to advertise being "on the market” to their current employer, and appreciate the breadth of reach, and anonymity that dealing with an agency gives them. Many need the aid of an agency to prepare and polish their CV, and get some clarity around what roles they are looking for.When you wish to find staff, look for agencies who really understand the IT sector. Choose agencies with national and international networks, and with great access to talent in your segment. Set out your plan, with dates, and don’t ignore the arrival of great CV, or take two weeks to get around to having the interview, or make the decision. In the last month we have had 25-30% of our applicants who have interviewed, take other roles because the interested employer took too long to make a decision.If you are not sure about the person, or aren’t certain of the genuine need for the role, try a contractor or properly utilise the "90-day period” to ensure a real fit. A good agency will be able to assist with the appropriately worded clause for your employment contract, and advise on your process.