IT workers flex their muscle

The year 2000 was predicted decades ago as a time when we would live a life of leisure while the robots would do the housework. We'd be able to fly to the moon on a whim. Instead, working hours are as long as ever, and the moon's fallen out of favour.

The year 2000 was predicted decades ago as a time when we would live a life of leisure while the robots would do the housework. We'd be able to fly to the moon on a whim. Instead, working hours are as long as ever, and the moon's fallen out of favour.

In some compensation for a longer week, as documented in Computerworld during the year, scarce IT workers wield a growing amount of muscle in the market. This means staff can demand far better pay and conditions, in this country and elsewhere. Thus skills shortages dominated the wider world of IT employment and human resources this year, along with the brain drain, the new Employment Relations Act, and greater use of the web for recruitment and training.

For a journalist, particularly one like me, relatively new to IT, the idea of there being more job vacancies than people able to work is a novelty, as are fast growing salaries. You can get your Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer [MCSE] papers, start on about 40K and see your salary double, treble or more in just a few years.

Cubiks, part of PA Consulting, reported average renumeration increases of up to 12.5%. Employment agencies reported even greater bounties on Java people, with salaries of $80,000 to $90,000 or more, and those with these skills having many jobs to choose from. Anything with web work and internet consultancy is hot right now, and the same is set for 2001. Despite these rapidly rising wages, New Zealand increasingly lags behind world rates, fuelled by a sinking dollar and an international lack of faith in our Labour-led government.

I paid my first trip home to Britain in August after three years and found a changed country. It seemed much more prosperous, more so than New Zealand, and jobs were plentiful. London’s streets are paved with gold for the IT elite. Web developers can earn £35,000, while senior Java people and C/C++ technical architects can command £50,000. US wages are even higher, which we reported in a special "What Am I Worth" international issue in November. The US economy, which seems to be slowing down now, was likened to a huge vacuum cleaner, ready to suck up IT talent from all over the world, as it sought to fill its skills shortage, now estimated at around 800,000 vacancies. To help, the US government is set to issue 600,000 green cards to overseas IT workers.

Britain and Germany too have their skills shortages, and have also eased work permit restrictions, along with Ireland. The Irish and their "Celtic Tiger" economy are a shining example to us all. Rampant economic growth fuelled by incoming IT businesses attracted by low taxes and “ripping off” the Germans to fund its European Union subsidies, noted business tycoon and Irishman Tony O’Reilly in Auckland recently.

More recently, as our government suffered increasing fire from its right-wing critics over the “brain drain”, we heard of it more as a two-way process - a “brain circulation”, said one recruitment agent recently. Kiwis are coming home for a better quality of life and return with skills and international experience, which is good for our economy. Europeans, Indians and Asians also head our way.

In addition, our low wages and low dollar means US companies increasingly see New Zealand as a cheap place in which to set up shop. Some have already arrived. The time difference between us and elsewhere also allows telecommuting type jobs for companies like CyberElves and various call centres. One “contact centre” chief said his line of work could be a bigger moneyspinner for New Zealand than mussels and wine combined.

The government’s recent e-commerce summit certainly raised awareness of related knowledge economy issues, though it is too soon to say if the summit achieves anything. Politically, despite all the fuss over the Employment Relations Act, the legislation has made little impact so far, and may have actually been good for the IT contracting industry.

Initially, the sky was to fall in as contractors were to be given rights to be classed as permanent staff. After a concerted campaign by the IT industry and others, the coalition government listened and watered down its proposals. Critics argued that scrapping the former Employment Contracts Act and other polices was hammering business confidence, thus Employment Minsiter Margaret Wilson had to u-turn to avoid a recession. For the contracting industry, it remains business as usual, with firms more inclined to hire contractors, to avoid any risks from greater workers rights from the ERB.

Greater unionisation was also the promise (or fear) of the bill, but again, no change in IT. Andrew Little of the Engineering Printing and Manufacturing Union appears the voice of moderation, saying it is up to people to join unions. Labour news correspondents, it seems, can forget about the prime time thrill of covering 70s-style industrial anarchy and must find excitement elsewhere. The unions now even have websites now for recruitment and other services.

Despite the dot.com disasters, the web is certainly the wonder of the moment. Www.something.com or .co.nz screams from so many banner ads now, including the URLs of many IT recruitment firms and sites. Online job numbers continue to soar alongside. Both jobseekers and the recruitment firms increasingly use the web and email.

Many recruitment agencies now receive 100 or more emails per day per staff member. The consultants can sort out the online CVs straight away, and call people up for interviews on the first day or so. Emails and the net mean the recruitment process is much quicker. Whether it is better remains to be seen, as the agencies inevitably need some human contact, such as at interview.

Human contact is also a theme with online training. Companies like Hewlett-Packard increasingly conduct staff training over the net. It saves time and travel, and thus much money, they say. Cost savings are also the attraction of online training and companies like Wave Training of Hamilton offer hundreds of them. But even they realise there are limits. As Computerworld reported last month, people still need face-to-face contact, particularly for those harder subjects like the MCSE. Yet web-based training has rocketed in popularity, particularly in the US.

So that was 2000 and what can we expect next year? More of the same - more brain drain, more skill shortages, and ever more money for those in short supply, more net use and more change.

A happy Christmas to you all, and it will be a rare or silly IT worker who fails to enjoy a prosperous 2001.

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