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Tuesday, 27 July 2010 08:03

Staff churn looms for skinflint employers


Australian enterprises faced with the spectre of IT skills crises should revisit their professional development programmes in order to retain key employees longer, and reduce the costs associated with staff churn.

Linda Trevor, the recently installed general manager of Candle ICT, said professional development programmes were important for companies which wanted to hold onto their IT staff, especially when skills shortages threaten. 'It's so critical to develop people; people forget how much it costs to hire and develop staff,' she warned.

Finite IT Recruitment's general manager, Duncan Thomson, said that although skills demand in Canberra, and curiously Queensland, had stalled since the election was announced, there was robust demand for IT skills elsewhere.  Demand had returned over the last few months to the extent that Finite now had the same number of open positions on its books as it did at the height of the boom.

That meant that employers had to be mindful about the risks of losing employees to pastures they perceived to be greener. 'If people are not being looked after they will look for something better over their shoulder,' warned Thomson.

Employers were particularly susceptible to permanent employee churn at the present, given the higher rates that were being offered for a range of contractor roles. 'We are in a transition phase. The sensible employers are revisiting and refreshing their development plans and making sure that those members of staff they rely on are looked after very well.

The time is ripe for enterprises to beef up professional development programmes according to Linda Trevor especially with the first sniff of skills shortages on the wind, as IT staff who may have been content to sit out the downturn, now start canvassing their options. And these people have long memories, she warns.

'In the downturn people weren't spending. Now the market has turned around, and people are thinking how they were treated,' said Trevor.

Those who felt their professional development needs had been neglected were likely to be among the first to walk.

'In certain areas we are seeing pockets of skills shortages; it's not critical yet - but I can see it coming,' she said. While it was not too late for companies to resuscitate professional development spending, the situation could be different in six months if skills shortages worsened she warned.

According to Clinton in't Veld, managing director of X-Pert Group which provides training and consulting in project management, organisations should also consider training more IT people in project management. Instead of just training project managers how to 'projectise' their thinking, this was a skill that all IT staff could benefit from he said.

According to in't Veld, by training IT staff to think holistically about IT projects, it was often possible for companies to do more with fewer people by understanding and leveraging both their primary and secondary skills sets. In fact he doubted that there was a real IT skills shortage at present; 'Just we are not leveraging skills fully.'

He said that although skills gaps might emerge, by adopting a project management approach 'Instead of a knee jerk reaction to hire five people, you may find you only need two.'

X-Pert has been working with the IT department of Perth based financial institution Bankwest to spread the understanding and use of project management competencies.  According to the head of IT customer delivery for Bankwest, Colin Jones, skills shortages in the IT industry sector were exacerbated in WA because of a smaller pool of people to draw from, and the strong competition from the mining and resources sector.

'What we are doing at Bankwest is trying to offset that and retain our people by investing in them and providing professional development,' according to Jones.

Candle's Linda Trevor sees this as a smart approach. 'If you don't offer a career path and development they (staff) will leave. I'm a big believer in training your own staff.

'You pay a fee for the agency and then you invest to train them, and people spend time to train them,' and then because there is little in the way of ongoing career development once productive staff leave. Investing in professional and career development was a 'no brainer' according to Trevor.

It might also help Australia tackle what the Australian Computer Society considers an underutilisation of older IT workers. Earlier this month the organisation released a report showing that Australian organisations rated poorly compared to international peers in terms of the retention of older IT workers.

One of the recommendations to emerge from that report was for Government to work with business to develop cost effective ways for employers to invest in professional training and development for older IT workers which would help keep them in the workforce longer.

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