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Get Your Creative (Staffing) Juices Flowing

Get Your Creative (Staffing) Juices Flowing

Don't expect to see an end to the IT staffing shortage anytime soon. Recent Meta Group figures place the number of open IT jobs at 400,000 this year (up from 180,000 in 1997)-a crisis that promises to endure long after Y2K has come and gone. According to Meta, the demand for IT services is growing at 25 per cent per year.

To get around the shortage, most CIOs are well-versed in Staff Development 101: Focus on retention, hire from within, load up on training opportunities. But beyond the usual parameters lie untapped options for bolstering IT staff.

Resourceful IT leaders are expanding their view of the prospects up and down the spectrum of age, locale and physical ability. And although most of these solutions require companies to invest significant resources in training, these CIOs are watching their investments pay off.

There's no question that finding long-term solutions to a long-term skills shortage takes time and ingenuity. And some executives tend to think "giant sucking sound" when they hear the phrase community partnership program-an investment with no return other than goodwill. But the following CIOs have discovered the opposite is true.

A couple of years ago, Northwest Airlines relied on offshore IT talent to bridge its staffing gaps. But the arrangement wasn't perfect. "It can be difficult to work through language barriers and time-zone differences," says John Parker, vice president of information services for $9 billion NWA in Minneapolis-St. Paul.

Another option soon presented itself.

One day in late 1997, Parker's predecessor, then Vice President of Information Services Bob Borlik, read a newspaper article about the plight of Minnesota's forgotten rural towns. A multistate electrical and telecommunications cooperative had just installed state-of-the-art frame-relay wiring throughout the town of Sebeka (population 600) in a bid to attract businesses. (The cooperative is in the process of wiring many rural communities throughout the heartland.) Borlik was intrigued. He dispatched a few consultants from Cross Consulting Group to the town-200 miles from Minneapolis-to scout around for a way to set up a rural outpost to extend NWA's development staff.

"We thought there was a chance it could provide us with a more stable workforce at a cheaper price than any of the major metropolitan areas. It wasn't as cheap as offshore labour, but if you factor in the intricacies of working with staff from another country, you're not that far off. It was worth a try," says Borlik.

NWA had been paying offshore developer companies between $20 and $30 per worker per hour. Cross Consulting President and Co-CEO Nick Debronsky figured the price point for rural workers would be between $30 and $50 per hour. Hardly chump change, but fully 30 per cent to 40 per cent lower than metropolitan rates for full-time workers. So Debronsky and Borlik decided to open a facility in Sebeka with about 30 programmers to start. To mitigate the risk of being saddled with a satellite facility if the arrangement did not work out, the workers were employees of Cross, not NWA. But Northwest made it clear the relationship was for the long haul, and Borlik viewed Sebeka as an NWA satellite location, not just a big bunch of contractors.

"We were looking for longevity in the relationship. We want people who have worked on our systems a long time. That's where we get the best synergy," says Parker. Sebeka programmers have worked on Y2K remediation as well as on maintaining the company's Cobol applications. Once they have a certain amount of training and experience, Sebeka employees are eligible to join NWA's 1,200-person IT staff at headquarters.

Because the majority of Sebeka employees come from service-industry jobs and do not have technical skills prior to joining the company, Cross pairs new workers with mentors with more technical expertise. "It takes about a year for them to become proficient," says Ross Graba, vice president and director of operations for Cross in Apple Valley, Minnesota.

For the workers, being able to work for Northwest in Sebeka means they don't have to leave town to make a living wage. "It was either work here or bag groceries," says Project Manager Andrew Ronneberg.

"Having grown up in Sebeka, I didn't want to move to the city. Life has a slower pace here," says Ronneberg, one of 40 who graduated with his class at Sebeka High. "I want my [3-year-old] daughter to go to Sebeka High," he adds.

Borlik, now senior vice president and CIO at $23 billion grocery retailer Supervalu in Eden Prairie, Minn., is evaluating a similar deal with Cross at the company's brand-new Watford City, N.D., facility.

Borlik sees the arrangement as a way to tighten the links between contractors and Supervalu. "Generally, you can't count on your outside [contractors] being there for the future. This is a little different. As you groom the consultants, they become more stable and they'll stay around. It's a new concept," says Borlik.

The high retention rate associated with rural workers can be a competitive advantage for a company that uses them, says Christopher Young, IT project manager for the Economic Development and Finance department for the state of North Dakota in Bismarck.

Low labor costs are an undeniable benefit too. "North Dakota is ranked number 51 [including Washington, D.C.] in terms of average high-tech wages. I'm not particularly proud of this. But it's a function of a phenomenally low cost of living," Young says. For example, a new five-bedroom house with central air, a large yard and a nearby school costs about $120,000.

Despite these advantages, Northwest's Parker cautions the arrangement is not for every company. IT staff at headquarters must do extremely detailed design for any project that Sebeka employees will work on so that objectives are clear. And staying in touch with the offsite developers is critical. In addition to daily contact via phone and e-mail, Northwest staff visits Sebeka to provide application training as well as for quarterly progress meetings, and Cross has an onsite relationship manager at Northwest's facility.

For companies willing to do the work, taking advantage of rural workers can be a cost-effective way to extend their IT staff.

Steven M. Orenstein never set out to hire mostly older people for his IT staff. It just worked out that way.

As CIO of aviation holding company Evergreen International Aviation, Orenstein has had chronic problems finding the right IT people to hire. At any time, his IT staff openings range from about 10 per cent to a painful 15 per cent of Evergreen's total IT jobs. He abandoned the idea of finding anyone with aviation experience long ago.

Orenstein's difficulty in finding suitable IT staffers springs partly from location: Evergreen is located in tiny McMinnville, Ore., halfway between Salem and Portland. Partly, the difficulty is due to technology: The business runs on three aging, Cobol-based Hewlett-Packard minicomputers; few people have those skills or the desire to learn them. And culture is to blame for part of the problem. Orenstein runs a much more formal shop than most IT departments these days. Staffers are required to wear coats and ties or dresses every day except Fridays. And everyone has to wear beepers and take a turn being on call overnight.

With the hiring deck seemingly stacked against him, Orenstein had an epiphany one day. At the latest in a string of "over the hill" employee birthday parties, he realised that many staff members were over 50; he calls them "seasoned citizens." (He puts himself in the same category.) Seven of his 13 staff members were over 50. The more seasoned people, he realised, were much more likely to make a long-term commitment to Evergreen. In a field rife with arrogant young things making $80,000 right out of the starting gate, Orenstein believed a more seasoned workforce could become his advantage.

"At first I was not specifically targeting older workers. But at some point it became clear that's what we would find. And then it became clear they were a good fit," says Orenstein. With tumultuous life events such as raising a family mostly behind them, older workers are free to concentrate on their work. No one personifies this premise better than Orenstein himself. Now in his mid-50s, he has often worked seven days a week since he joined Evergreen eight years ago. Orenstein especially wanted a pledge to stay more than a year from the Cobol programmers he brought on to run the systems. "We have a long learning curve in this area. It can take six months to become competent and a year to be fully functional on our systems. The more seasoned individuals seemed much more comfortable with making a long-term commitment," he says.

The only potential trap of hiring predominantly older people? Hiring someone with decades of experience who never progressed in his job. "[Such people] sit in the same corner and monitor the same system year after year, so they don't learn anything. We found way too many people who came out of big shops who fell into that category," Orenstein adds.

Vince Ward remembers when it dawned on him that his company was not taking its high school intern Jeremiah Slater nearly seriously enough.

Two weeks into a six-week internship, then high school senior Slater did unusually sophisticated work on a project developing HTML screens. What's even more impressive, Slater did the work with minimal supervision, says Ward, IT project manager and the most senior IT person at Wilfarm's headquarters, a Kansas City, Mo., distributor of crop protection products.

"We just gave him a book on [Microsoft] FrontPage 98 and told him to read it," says Ward. "We had the attitude of, 'It's free help, so if we get anything out of it, it's a bonus.' But we quickly learned Jeremiah had higher expectations." Then Ward realised he owed it to Slater to spend some time mapping out projects that would help him acquire marketable skills.

For his part, Slater thought the lack of supervision in the unpaid internship was normal. "I learned quite a bit doing it on my own. I felt it was going fine," he says.

"It easily could have been a very bad internship," says Ward. High school students require a higher degree of supervision than other employees. It wouldn't have been surprising if the student had sat in his cubicle and read magazines rather than learn. Thankfully, Slater turned out to be highly motivated and self-directed. (The Kansas City School-to-Career program that sent him to Wilfarm takes students only with a GPA of B and higher.) Ironically, while Ward was overlooking Slater, he was scrambling to fill Wilfarm's open IT slots. "It's been extremely hard me for to find qualified people. There's a lot of pressure on benefits and salaries," says Ward. As soon as he realised the extent of Slater's untapped potential, he began to take the young man very seriously indeed.

The first major project Ward had Slater take on was developing a Web interface for the company's AS/400 applications. Slater was well underway on that project when the internship ended, so Ward offered him a permanent part-time job during his senior year at North Kansas City High School.

Today Slater works roughly 30 hours a week for Wilfarm while attending college, and Ward would be more than happy to hire him as a full-timer some day. Slater recently developed Wilfarm's corporate intranet-for $7.25 per hour, no less-and is now working on a revamp of the intranet using Lotus Domino.

Many CIOs may not realise what a good resource local School-to-Career programs can be. The Information Technology Association of America sponsors a national program to address the IT skills gap in grades K-12. (For more information, visit www.itaa.org/workforce/index.htm.) But companies must have well-planned programs and not just leave the students to fend for themselves.

"Many executives are reluctant to fill their IT staff with high school students. But companies should look at this as the way to build the pipeline of future workers," says Jeffrey Joerres, CEO of Manpower , a temporary employment and international staffing services provider in Milwaukee.

Ted Larson may have been born without sight, but he sees his career as a computer programmer very clearly.

"I just want to be productive. And I love programming," says Larson, a senior programmer on the IT staff at the headquarters of temporary-employment services provider Manpower.

Robbed of his eyesight at birth nearly 50 years ago, Larson received his first technical training in 1970 at Southern College of Business and Technology in Orlando, Fla. There he learned to program in Assembler and Cobol, skills he was eager to put to work. "I didn't want to go through four years of college and not get hired as a programmer. I didn't want to work at a food stand," says Larson.

After graduation, Larson found a job at the Milwaukee Insurance, where he was a member of the IT staff for 26 years, developing and maintaining a variety of insurance-related applications. In 1998, when Trinity Universal Insurance bought Milwaukee Insurance and moved the IT division to Dallas, Larson found work at Manpower Technical (the technical-services arm of Manpower) prior to moving to his current job at headquarters.

"The reality is, disabled people have tremendous skills. Why would the disability prevent them from doing what they're supposed to do?" asks CEO Joerres. Joerres says he works hard to ensure his company's work environment-and that of his client companies-is 100 per cent rejection-free.

To ensure his disability does not impede his work, Larson uses a variety of adaptive technologies. He has an IBM Screen Reader that reads him everything that appears on the computer screen. He has a special printer that outputs all data in Braille. He also has a scanner and speech synthesizer that translates printed materials to speech.

But it's not all about the technology. "Most of the adapting that needs to happen is with people," says Peter Stockhausen, CIO for Manpower. "Everyone in Ted's work area knows the situation and makes very minor accommodations, such as opening doors for him. None of that interferes with the work. In fact, it knits the group much tighter and they end up being more productive."

That doesn't surprise Kevin Ellerman, a professor of information systems at the Community College of Denver. For 18 years, the college has worked with employers on its Business Advisory Council developing curricula to train disabled people for IT jobs.

The council has a mentoring program called Computer Training for People with Disabilities that matches business people with disabled people who are in the middle of technical training programs. "That helps displace the prejudices [against hiring the disabled] much more than any dog-and-pony show we could ever do," says Ellerman, who is also blind. The program has been so successful that it is being replicated in Denver and has received federal grants to replicate the program across the country.

As for Larson, he intends to learn more programming languages and would like to develop Internet skills. "My disability has not impeded my career. I always figured I would succeed or not succeed based on my own innate abilities," he adds.

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