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Finding scarce talent

01 Nov 2011

In the wake of the global economic downturn, business is picking up again in New Zealand. But many companies now find it difficult to attract staff with the right skills to further their growth.Candace Kinser, chief executive officer of the New Zealand Information and Communication Technologies Group (NZICT), says the ICT workforce of New Zealand consists of around 40,000 people, and is looking relatively healthy for stability. But she acknowledges that she sees a skills shortage."ICT workers are well paid and sought after. We do suffer from a skills shortage, however, but we are trying to address this with government, training institutes and other industry bodies,” Kinser says.She points out this shortage is a worldwide issue, as all countries are competing to employ the most skilled and qualified ICT workers. And this shortage of people with the needed technological skills has indeed been highlighted at the global level. In PricewaterhouseCoopers’ 2011 report Growth Reimagined – The talent race is back on. The 14th Annual Global CEO Survey the interviewed CEOs express their concern about being able to attract the staff they need."The talent crisis is no longer a problem of the future. It is here and now and is threatening business growth and economic prosperity,” the report states.In the survey of the report, one of the questions CEOs were asked was: "Considering the talent required for the success of your business over the next three years, what are the key challenges you expect to face?” 66% responded "limited supply of candidates with the right skills”. 44% answered "talent with the right technical skills lack flexibility and creativity”, and 54% responded "challenges in recruiting and integrating younger employees”.Changing attitudesAbtrac is a New Zealand based time recording and billing software company, currently experiencing explosive growth not only in New Zealand but also into Australia. Abtrac founder and director Edward O’Leary attributes some of this growth to a need for more accountability in many organisations during the recent economic downturn. He says the financial situation has certainly increased the focus of business attitudes on productivity and staff retention."Business used to be easy-come-easy-go. Over only a couple of years that has changed. Now it's "what can we do today to make sure it keeps going tomorrow". People now know that nothing is certain. Whether they are on the board of directors or sitting in the coldest corner of an open office, everyone knows they have a role to play to make sure they stay in the game,” he says.He point to the factor that many people in New Zealand’s current IT market have done some time overseas and often struggle upon returning back into our workforce."A common issue is inflated remuneration expectations, as the industry tends to be higher paying overseas and employees struggle with the disparity here. They can also find the broader scope of duties in a smaller New Zealand IT department challenging because they have been in very a niche specialist IT roles overseas,” he suggests. Need for trainingIn the telco sector the pressure is also felt. David Stone, chief executive officer for the Telecommunication Carriers' Forum says the current New Zealand ICT workforce is inadequate for the tasks that lie ahead."Fundamentally, we are not training sufficient specialists to meet the ICT needs, and as a consequence we are importing large numbers of computer and network engineers from overseas. India and China each produce of the order of 50,000 graduate engineers each year, while New Zealand produces around 200 across all engineering disciplines,” he says."The impact on the wider ICT industry is that we are constantly looking for skilled staff and most are not being produced in New Zealand. In part this is due to ICT careers not being seen as desirable or ‘sexy’, and this has the effect of lessening demand for courses in these disciplines,” Stone says.The need for training has also got the attention of the Government, and the Department of Labour stated in its report Workforce 2020: Forces for Change in the Future Labour Market of New Zealand that "The pace of change driven by new technologies and technological advances looks set to continue and even accelerate, meaning that existing skills in the most high-value sectors of the workplace will need to be frequently upgraded”. NZICT’s Kinser agrees that training is important along with an effort to change attitudes towards seeing technology as an interesting career choice for young people."We need to tackle our image issue with youth. Technology, through a range of devices, applications and the Internet, has become fashionable for youth, but that does not mean that they will want to pursue a career in technology. We need to bridge that divide so that youth become interested in what is driving that technology, not just what it does. Working with universities to ensure that the curriculum they are teaching graduates of technology degrees aligns with industry requirements is also a critical focus for the future,” Kinser says.As examples of initiatives NZICT has been involved in, she mentions the Technology Jobs Fair in ‘The Cloud’ held in Auckland during the Rugby World Cup influx, and the T4E programme run in cooperation with Work and Income NZ, placing youth into the workforce in an internship capacity."This programme is proving very successful, and is supported by WINZ and the employers alike, and we are finding that the early exposure to the ICT industry is having a positive effect on the career plans for young adults at a critical juncture in their development,” she says.The Government is also supporting initiatives to entice university students into working for high-tech businesses. In September Science and Innovation Minister Dr Wayne Mapp announced that $1.28 million will this year be used to fund the ministry’s Undergraduate Internships Programme, where about 200 scientific, engineering and technology undergraduate students will get a taste of working in research and development projects during the summer break."This Government wants to see better connections and more collaboration between science and business. These internships contribute to this goal. In turn, businesses can tap into students’ knowledge, insights and skills to contribute to new products, processes or services,” Dr Mapp said.Managing talentIn the quest to optimise what they get out of their workforce, companies are being encouraged to look at talent management.The PricewaterhouseCoopers report puts it this way: "We believe many organisations are failing to understand what talent management really means and are unclear about how they can create a sustainable talent pipeline for the long term. Organisations need to manage their talent supply chain with the same rigour they would with other parts of the organisation. They must focus on making their organisations the most attractive to the best local talent.”This notion of a need to focus on the efficiency and productivity of the workforce is supported by Abtrac’s O’Leary:"It’s true that good people are a company’s greatest asset. The biggest cost for most New Zealand businesses are people, so increasingly businesses are not only investing in time management to focus people on the value they add to their business, but also in up-skilling and staff retention exercises.”"Productivity is defined as a measure of output per unit of input. Nowadays, most units of input are people applying their skills and expertise which they deliver as hours at work. Therefore, measuring the hours worked is a necessary part of measuring productivity. Time measurement should be a centre-front gauge in the cockpit of the business – so it can be managed, in real time,” O’Leary says.