10 min read

Struggling with IT staffing

CDN's executive roundtable looks for the answers

One of the biggest issues facing the Canadian IT industry today is staffing.CDN’s editor, Paolo Del Nib­letto, recently sat down with four Canadian VARs to discuss the issue. Paricipating were Joseph Arnone, president of BAASS Business Solutions, Don Conaby, president of Conpute, Mary Ann Yule, director of marketing and purchasing at CDW and Alvina Usher, vice-president of business development at ­Prosys/Sona.

CDN: Staffing has been a long term problem in the Canadian IT industry, but according to a recent Deloitte report it looks like it may be in a crisis mode and could impact Canadian competitiveness. In the midst of all this, CGI CEO Michael Roach recently said it’s incumbent upon the government to create an IT “super school” to provide the talent to private enterprise to sustain growth. I invited you all here because you’ve all solved your own problems. But first I want to ask the panel, do you think we’re losing ground? What are you seeing in your respective areas? Is there a lack of quality in terms of IT staffing? Do you believe it’s impacting your own business? And do you think competitiveness is a concern?

Don Conaby: I have my own IT company and I’m also president at VTN, so IT staffing has been the cause of many conversations. It’s not just about staffing, it’s about how you get staff and how you keep them from getting away. Amongst VTN members, there’s been many discussions around hiring, training, and retaining them too. We have solved some of the problems because of best practices. But I think the problem continues to increase as the age of the working population grows; you’re going to find more people retiring and leaving the business and fewer people coming into the business. We work closely with the universities and colleges to ensure their graduates meet some of our current employment needs. We want to make sure the graduates are coming out with the right skills sets that we’re looking for in our organization. We’ve found one of the best ways of beating the problem is by having a growth round, where you bring people in straight out of college or university and you train them on a junior level, and especially on the technical side, and let them grow and mature to become senior systems engineers. We’ve found that we’re more successful in retaining employees then going into the market and having to bid on high priced technical resources. And usually someone soon outbids you for another five grand and they’re gone anyways. So the time you keep those individuals is usually short. The other thing that has worked out very well for VTN is the partnerships we share amongst the members. You’re always going to have a shortage of skills sets in certain areas so we tend to lend skills sets between the various members.

CDN: Have you had any discussions saying if you don’t address this issue now you’ll be in trouble down the road?

Conaby: Most of our action has been around developing best practices, making sure we have the infrastructure and are doing the right things to the culture of hiring and retaining staff. By developing best practices it helps solve some of those problems, and those best practices can be built on to solve problems as they arise. If you’re starting from grassroots today saying I’ve got problems and I don’t have any of those best practices and technologies in place, then you’re really starting from behind the car.

Mary Ann Yule: At CDW we have a process for how we recruit individuals, how we employ them, how we train them throughout their careers and how we create opportunities for them in our organization. We tend to hire a lot of graduates from universities. They’re keen, they’re eager, and there’s the ability to bring them into an environment and train them. We also have a culture of retention. Our HR department is called Co-worker Services because it services the co-workers of companies so there’s many things to keep them engaged in our company, such as employee surveys. If they fit within our culture and we work with them, if we understand what makes them tick and what their issues are, then we have a stronger group of individuals that stay with the organization longer. There’s always talent on the street. You may find the people you have don’t necessarily fit. It’s always tough to get good talent but when you have it, it’s always important for an organization to retain it.

CDN: Has your organization ever measured your retention rate, and how high is it?

Yule: We don’t share this specific data but we heavily measure many many things. It’s high and we have metrics that we manage our team with on retention. As an organization we want to make sure we have a certain type of percentage retention. It changes the dynamic and the behavior of your management and leadership team. And retention comes top down from the organization so again it’s that culture of retention and having a respectful environment where people want to work.

CDN: So it’s a situation where you’re worried about this person leaving your team as a manager, that’s one of the things you have to think about as well?

Yule: It’s not so much of a worry because, again, if you create it in a way in which you operate you don’t worry about it. You just manage it and work it so that you have a group of people that are satisfied in their jobs. We do career pathing with our team and we have tools to facilitate that.

CDN: Joe, you’re a $10-15 million reseller in this market. How important is IT staffing to you and does it keep you up at night?

Joe Arnone: We like to hire individuals just out of college or university and then develop them within our culture. One of the issues within our industry is a number of us have been in the business for 20 years which puts the majority of us in that 40-50 year old bracket. So, it’s very important the younger individuals see some succession in the future. We’re also proud of our retention where we have quite a number of individuals that have been with us for five to 15 years. For the client, there’s that continuity and that consistent consultant they’ve known for 10-15 years they can call on. There have been less individuals with an accounting background that want to get into the accounting IT world, so there’s definitely a shortage there. We have an accounting company associated with us so what we normally get new hires started in the accounting group. They get to go out to smaller clients, get trained on accounting or take education courses through Seneca College, or we develop them as consultants with clients. When we do hire and when they do start some consulting, we do partner them up with a senior individual. That’s the mentor; they follow that person out into the field and learn from that individual.

CDN: Alvina, we’re talking about the Canadian IT industry losing its competitiveness. Have you seen that in your own business and in the general marketplace where you are in Ottawa?

Alvina Usher: People left our company, went to work in Ottawa for another company and came back. My question was to ask why. I put together four things, and first is training. This is an opportunity for us to find the education that we need and define what we’re looking for when we’re giving our requirements out to the market. I’m working with Algonquin ­College, and their business administration and sales administration courses, giving some speeches and courses on how to sell. It’s a good place for us to find the talent we need. And they need to have clear advancement paths. What do I do in five years? How much do I need to bring to get another position? When a person comes into a company, and it’s a smaller company, they kind of feel left alone. It’s a lack of middle management. We come to another point where we don’t have management that’s interested in employee succession. There has to be one goal and one mission from the bottom up and from top to bottom. Even a smaller company has to be structured as a bigger company. They can’t just be an an HR person, but a person taking care of training, career advancement path and onboarding. But no one has the time.

Yule: I’ve worked in smaller organizations as well, and you’re right. But even larger companies move fast, and there isn’t a lot of time. What we can do, and what I’ve seen smaller organizations do, is create a buddy program. You bring in your person and you buddy them with the most senior individual and they follow them and they learn and listen. I don’t think you necessarily need a management layer to help individuals find their career, I think it has a lot to do with you as an individual. What is your career path? What do you want to do? You’re not going to give them a career path and say this is it. These are the 10 steps and you will be CEO or president one day. Career path is one thing but also the culture and climate of your organization. If your environment is such that you enjoy the experience then you’re going to want to come back. There’s a requirement for leadership in your organization to take a conscious approach to the talent, as opposed to I got them in and everything’s set up and now they have to go and produce. There’s a requirement to stop and think okay, how do I see my organization growing to meet our sales targets, how are we going to get from here to there? It’s going to be from your people because generally, with the reseller community, you’re all selling the same stuff, the difference is your people. There’s a requirement to pause and look at your talent pool and look and think how you’re going to retain the best talent.

CDN: Michael Roach said he wants the government to create an IT super school, but we sort of already have that in Waterloo. However, the top 40 students leave us right off the bat. Should government fund private enterprise?

Conaby: Highest bidder wins.

Usher: Exactly. So, the small business community can not really afford it. Right now we’re looking for a professional services person. We’re looking at $100,000 base, without commission. It’s necessary to take the next step in our business, we have to take risks and pay top dollars. And how do we ask government to help if this person has 12-25 offers?

Yule: If we have a vision in the country to have a sustainable IT community then I think it’s for certain the government would have a role. It would be fantastic if Canada decided over the next five, seven or 10 years we’ll have an IT super environment. That would be a fantastic vision. You may still lose top talent out of the country but you can create a climate and culture in the country.

Arnone: It should also be investing in the current colleges that we have such as the one in Durham Collage.

Conaby: Government investments should be in growing the talent in an educational environment, so I don’t support government investing in a private enterprise system. I do support them creating an environment in co-operation with the industry to match talent requirements with educational programs. I think what we’re seeing in the last few years is many technicians and SEs coming in from the Eastern block. They all have strong technology backgrounds and they’re all eager to work, and to work hard. And they’re now getting top dollar as well. So it’s interesting, we’re now seeing a lot of imported talent from that Eastern block. They’ve done a much better job it seems growing technology talent than we have in North America. Does the government have a responsibility in fostering an education system that builds it up? Yes. Can industry support that? Yes. It has been proven to be successful in other countries. I don’t think North America has quite got there. We still have too many people in the arts program coming out with science and geography degrees.

Usher: The immigrants that are coming are eager to work and further their education. Government can help immigrants apply for a degree to come to this country. It was like that a few years ago but then the government closed it. They’re under the impression that we’re flooded with talent. We’re under the impression that we’re dying from lack of talent.

Conaby: The pressures felt at the reseller level may be different than what they are in large enterprises. We can afford to grow talent, but with all of the mergers and acquisitions they’re buying talent and they’re sucking some of our talent out. I think in some respects the enterprises are more so feeling the pinch because we’ve built best practices and cultures and the farms, because we’re an IT company. For enterprise, IT is just a department. I see some of the problems more in the enterprise and I think that’s why more and more organizations such as us are outsourcing staff to large enterprises. They can’t hire the talent so they come to us to say can we hire you to do that work for us?

Yule: I look at some of the customers and how we service them, and we’re an extension of their IT department in many ways because of the talent. They’re calling and saying, I need this, come help me.

Usher: Which means the lack of IT staff for the large enterprise brings us more business, so hallelujah.

Conaby: I mean, we’re a farm. We’re also a farm for them to go after because with most average sized resellers there’s always a limited career path. Once you become a senior SE, what’s the next career path? There really isn’t one. It’s a challenge to keep them interested. All of a sudden, the next opportunity comes with a major corporation and it gives them an enterprise look and feel that allows them to get into a certain environment that may have a North American footprint and their eyes get all starry. I think resellers have been farmed both for outsourcing and also for talent stealing for larger enterprises.

Yule: With talent, if you’ve developed an individual and you’ve nutured them and then five years in, you lose them, I mean, it hurts. They’re good people, they’re good talent.

CDN: Is there any way that you can stop this?

Conaby: I think there are certain realities. I think if you’re with a smaller career path at a smaller organization, at some point you have to realize that the marriage only works if both parties are happy. At some point, if you no longer meet the needs of that person because of the size of the organization that you are or that you’re servicing, then it’s not like a marriage, it’s like they’re a child. You’ve grown them up to a level, but he wants to pull the string and move out on his own. And that’s the reality. So unless you can grow your organization around that and create those new markets and technologies and investments to keep the interest there, at some point you’re going to have to say he wants to grow up and go on and that’s the reality. That’s why you have the funnel and you build it in. We’ve always had a new crop of people coming up behind to fill the gap. What a lot of the VTN members are doing is they’re making it very difficult for their clients to hire their staff away. So, in other words, if you’re outsourcing to a client, it’s going to cost you $50,000 and sign on the dotted line and they don’t do work for the client unless the document’s signed, and there’s a code of ethics that occurs between the client and the partner to minimize the impact of your clients stealing your staff. And if they are going to hire them away, they’re going to pay.

Arnone: If it’s a bigger company, they’ll usually adhere to that policy.

CDN: Have you been stung badly Joe by some of your smart people leaving?

Arnone: You know, sometimes people want a change. They’ve been doing consulting for a while and in our case, they become CFO or controller and they just want to do something different.

Usher: A lot of times we’ve had people coming back because the company was changing with different technologies and product offerings. One person went to the banking industry and he ran away after four months because it was so static. He came back because our job is great. In our industry, it’s so demanding.

For part II of the roundtable discussion, please click here.