SMEs facing IT staff shortage

16 Mar 2005

Recruiting good IT staff has never been an easy task. In the boom times of the late Nineties, even junior staff members were being offered such exorbitant salaries that recruiting an entry-level database administrator proved costly and time consuming.

Since the subsequent downturn in the internet and technology sectors, salaries have dropped but many skilled IT workers have got out of the sector and the numbers of third-level students taking IT courses has nosedived.

According to anecdotal evidence, the problem of getting good technical staff is even more acute for SMEs as many IT professionals do not see them as an attractive place to work.

Paul Carroll, business development director with technical recruitment specialists CPL, suggests that SMEs need to consider what their unique employer brand is — it could be that they are more innovative than larger organisations, that even junior IT staff will see the entire development cycle of a project, or it could be just a nicer place to work.

Barry Paterson, managing director of recruiter IT Talent, believes there are a number of different factors that influence whether a company is attractive to candidates. He makes a distinction between SMEs with fewer than 20 employees and those with more than 20 that are generally much more attractive. In addition, companies that are ICT focused rather than a general business that uses IT as a support will be more attractive.

According to Noeleen McKenna, business manager with HRM Information Technology, the size of a company is less important to candidates than the type of role on offer and the prospects for career advancement.

In her experience, SMEs do not always struggle to attract IT staff. “It can depend on the position on offer and the technology already in place or future technology plans,” she says. “If an SME is planning an upgrade of their current systems or have a few interesting projects in the pipeline this can be very appealing to potential IT candidates.”

Paterson advises companies finding it hard to recruit to consider outsourcing the project or function or hiring temporary contract staff to get the job done. While outsourcing of IT functions is becoming more commonplace and widely acceptable, hiring contractors has its own set of issues — not least that the industry rates are on the rise.

“If SMEs are finding it more difficult to recruit now, which they are, they are going to be really under pressure in three or four years’ time,” says Paterson. “The drop in university numbers on ICT courses means they are trying to grab graduates now but in the future they won’t be there.”

It has often been suggested that one of the drawbacks for IT staff working in SMEs is that they are expected to be a jack of all trades — handling everything from PC support to development work on a high-end business application. However, in Carroll’s experience, SMEs make the mistake of writing job descriptions and adverts that are too specific. “I would encourage smaller organisations to think candidly about their culture and values and find a way of expressing that in their adverts,” says Carroll. “The person who will be a success in your company will be attracted to that.”

“SMEs will have to get an individual who straddles more than one horse,” adds Carroll. “They should hire the type of person who demonstrates flexibility, even if he or she doesn’t have the specific skills they are looking for, as he or she is more likely to be a success. You can teach skills but you won’t change what’s inherent.”

By John Collins