Growing our own

Last week's look at skill shortages and New Zealand's need to bring in immigrants from third world countries begs the obvious question: Is our education and training sector failing us if our businesses persistently need to bring in IT people from overseas?

Last week’s look at skill shortages and New Zealand’s need to bring in immigrants from third world countries begs the obvious question: Is our education and training sector failing us if our businesses persistently need to bring in IT people from overseas?

Apparently not. In recent years New Zealand has seen a vast explosion of training courses and providers, with student numbers increasing from the hundreds to the thousands, though exact totals are hard to pin down.

Much training, particularly for technology-based subjects, is supplied by private training organisations, but we have also seen the state sector muscling in with a range of diploma and degree options. For example, the first group of e-commerce degree students graduated this month from Waikato Management School.

ITANZ chief Jim O’Neill thinks the country produces too many accountants and lawyers, but believes the past five years has seen a considerable turnaround, with more and more people wanting to work in IT. He cites the formation of a Wellington-based group called Unlimited Potential, comprising 500 IT professionals under 30, as evidence of their growth.

While our domestic training providers are adapting well to changing technologies, there will always be a need to bring in certain specialists from overseas, O'Neill says, and encourage Kiwis with foreign experience to come home.

O’Neill says Java, C++, Magix, Perl, VB and other web development skills are in demand, as well as systems administration and security savvy, even as mainframe-related skills like Cobol move closer to having had their day.

People should consider courses in these skills, as well as those run by big vendors such as Microsoft, Cisco, Sun and SAP, and the polytechnic and university courses, he says.

Typically, training providers are ever keen to blow their own trumpets.

SAP New Zealand marketing manager Lyndy Adams says her ERP software product is in greatest demand for portals, business intelligence, customer relationship management, e-procurement and supply chain management projects.

Once in the SAP world, if they keep their skills up to date, she says, professionals have a job for life. Adams recommends SAP courses in the mentioned subject areas. SAP provides its own training, usually through "partners" like Auckland University, which incorporates the product into its undergraduate and postgraduate courses. She says hundreds of students are trained in SAP every year, and believes that not only can we grow our own but Kiwi SAPpers often get work overseas.

The state sector is not asleep either, with the Waikato Management School claiming “very strong demand” for its Bachelor of Electronic Commerce degree programme, which “mixes technical and management courses with hands-on-experience”.

Professor of e-commerce Robert McQueen was unavailable for comment at the time of writing, but by email writes that the key ability needed in the next few years will be narrowing the gap between technical literacy and management skills.

“In the short term, that requires a two-pronged approach: to bring on managers who have greater knowledge and confidence in the technology issues, and to ensure that technology specialists are making decisions informed by a better knowledge of business strategy."

McQueen says this gap will close as recent business and management graduates with technical literacy are fast-tracked into management positions; and recent technology specialists graduates are coming into organisations with much higher awareness of business strategy issues.

However, recruiter Megan Fletcher of Protocol Personnel warns that private training companies are setting expectations among their students that work will be guaranteed, when it cannot.

Protocol, which specialises in IT support in the desktop and LAN/WAN area, is seeking people with A+ and Net+ certification, MCSEs or MCPs plus various qualifications from the universities and polytechnics. But it finds little demand for web development and e-commerce skills from its customers, Fletcher says.

However, McQueen’s comments find favour at Recruitment Solutions. Senior IT specialist Hugh Lloyd says the IT market presently has too many people just having the right technical skills. Employers also want those with good business analysis and consulting skills as well -- “people with a technical background who have experience in taking technology to business effectively".

It is this multitasking ability to liaise with clients over more areas -- say, working with sales and client managers, Lloyd says -- that will be a trend of the future.

A degree will help you find work, but experience counts more. Immigrants with certain specialist or unique skills will always be needed, he says, but by learning such multitasking skills, we can do more to ‘grow our own’, says Lloyd.

“People have to know what they want and have a structure in place to get it. They need to read up on the business sector they are in, discover why their employer is growing or contracting and understand a whole lot more."

Greenwood is Computerworld's human resources reporter. Send letters for publication to Computerworld Letters.

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