Close the IT generation gap

Close the IT generation gap

As IT veterans make their exit, companies are finding it hard to find new recruits. We talk to a longtime Hbc exec and an up-and-comer to explore the differences in attitude and expectations

Mary-Jane Jarvis-Haig is about to leave one of Canada's largest enterprises after decades on the job, but she's already contemplating her next career move.

"I think I'd like to be a business intelligence 'special agent,'" says Jarvis-Haig, Hudson Bay's senior manager of business intelligence. "One of my real strengths is working with people and building good teams. I have this niche around BI, but it's getting the most out of the technology and the people that I think I bring to an organization."

She also brings longevity. Jarvis-Haig started with Hbc in 1976 as a programmer, and moved up the ranks over the past 30 years.

"The world was just beginning to look at databases at the time," she says. "It had been an all-male team. I wasn't particularly welcome, but the core of technology team left, because there was a lot of turnover in those years."

Now there's still turnover, but not as many new recruits coming in. As one generation of IT workers retires and another starts building up their resumes, managing the cultural differences between them may be difficult.

The Conference Board of Canada recently released a report on IT workforce development strategies, but according to co-author Barbara Fennessy, existing research has focused primarily on identifying the extent of the IT labour shortage. The next step, she said, is looking into why a shortage exists, and whether firms need to employ different tactics to retain workers.

Young hot-shots

For Jarvis-Haig, who saw Hbc go through a technology staff that peaked at 800 before various levels of downsizing, changes in management made it feel like she was working for several different companies. She just didn't have to find another job, she says.

"Part of it is the person who I am. I wasn't about quick stops on a ladder going someplace. Lots of people came through my teams who worked beside me who had a very specific career plan," she says. "My approach seems to be if there's an opportunity there, I'll do it." Jarvis-Haig says she has noticed some generational differences that require skilful handling.

"People don't come out of school with the vision of, 'Let me find a company I can take to greatness.' That's not what we teach them in school," she says. "People come out expecting a great job. Why should they have to start at the bottom and work up?"

Old know-it-alls

Young workers aren't the only ones with an attitude, though. Thomas Siry is a third-year Bachelor of Applied Information Systems student studying at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology in Canada. After two years working in help desk roles, he decided to pursue a more fulfilling career as a network administrator or designer. He's seen the generation gap work both ways.

"You come on as a greenhorn. They really don't take your education for anything," Siry says. "You walk in and these guys who have the Windows 95 for Dummies book up there, you know they haven't been keeping up their skills."

Siry is hoping to run his own IT department within the next seven years. As for incentives, given the high costs of living in major city centres, "It's about pay, as shallow as that sounds."

Jarvis-Haig agrees. "They're going to have to pay more," she says bluntly. The other trick, she says, is to catch them on what she calls the first round. "Anybody I hire, I say to them, 'I'll make a deal with you. When you become bored or tired, all I ask is that you come and tell me that you may be looking.'" That's when she tries to find a new project.

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