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This month I'm going to go down the route of employment, because here at N-ARY, we're going through the painful process of recruiting. As usual, I'm going to analogize my findings with a human personality trait - this month I'm going to go for loyalty. But I'll come back to that in a moment.

We're expanding, and that brings more work with it. We need more bodies. Not a huge problem, one would have thought, to go and hire a couple of Java developers. Boy, were we mistaken! We never realized the minefield we'd be entering. Since we're based in the UK, we began our search on home soil.

First Things First
The first thing we prepared was a job specification. A good place to start. It was quickly established that there was a junior role that would in time develop into a more senior position. So we were looking for someone just out of university, or not long in industry. Due to the budget we had allocated for this new person and the nature of the work, a graduate fitted the bill perfectly. What we did insist on was someone with Java experience. Whether it was coding at university or during spare time, we needed someone who could code from day one, as opposed to our training them. Considering the claims from Sun concerning the number of Java developers in existence, we didn't think we were asking too much.

We began our search by first going to the place where graduates are supposed to hang out: universities. We e-mailed all the major universities in our country and got nowhere fast. Why? Wrong time of the year. Our search began around August of last year, but I was sure some graduates must still be lurking around after the exams. If they were, none presented themselves.

Around this time, I began to read many articles about the skills shortage the IT industry was experiencing. In fact, there was even a move in this country to train prisoners to deal with the Year 2000 problem. I'm not quite sure what happened to that scheme, but all seems to have gone quiet on that front. Somebody in our government must have thought it a good idea at the time. Bless.

While this shortage was being reported, another irony was unfolding. Everywhere you looked, another major corporation was laying off staff. Not just one or two people, but thousands. A quick trawl through c-net.com showed the full horror of the situation. According to the news reports found at C-NET, we have the likes of Nortel laying off 3,500 employees; Netscape, 300; SGI, 1,000 - and even our Japanese friends, with Hitachi laying off 650. These are just the big household names; I'm not even listing all the smaller companies that are getting rid of 20 to 50 people. It looks somewhat bleak.

But I have to ask: When so many are joining the job market, how come we're still experiencing a shortage? There are a number of possible reasons. First of all, the job cuts may be of nonskilled workers. This is possible, but I know some people that have left the ranks of Nortel, for example, and they are far from nonskilled. So let's assume it's not all administrative staff that's been removed. Besides, administrative people traditionally don't cost that much when compared to a highly trained developer. If the job cuts are made to save money, then removing a team of developers as opposed to a number of secretaries will save more. When the accountants need to make cuts, they look at the higher end salaries and begin with them, then generally work up. Stands to reason - getting rid of one person as opposed to the equivalent of three will keep morale higher and not look as bad to the press.

The assumption is that there are people now looking for jobs. Of course, if there is a skills shortage, but companies are making major job cuts, it begs the question of which companies are looking to hire. But let's not deal with that one just yet.

Okay now. On one hand we have the claim that says we're suffering a skills shortage; on the other we're making significant job cuts. Maybe the two are related. Maybe the reason there are so many job cuts is because the skills the company is looking for aren't actually in-house. This would make sense to some degree. But again, a question about retraining the said personnel raises its ugly head. Surely that's got to be cheaper than going through the whole firing and hiring loop.

Reality Check
But there's another possible reason that's a bit more controversial. What if there are enough bodies and they claim to have the skills, but when these people are hired companies find they've been duped? They discover the level of expertise isn't quite what they expected. Looking at the Java universe we can see this is very evident. A number of people claim to know Java, but when you look closely at their CVs you discover, for example, an HTML developer with no formal programming skills. Call me cynical, but a programmer that does not him/her make.

In our quest for Java developers we've seen many of these CVs. Most are worthless. We need a developer, a software engineer. We don't need another HTML body. We need someone who knows algorithms, someone who knows one end of a class from another. Sadly, the self-taught brigades aren't up to scratch.

But why is there a skills shortage? Why are so many people not trained for the jobs the industry is looking to fill? Is it because companies have taken on too much work? Have they oversold themselves? Who knows? A general slowdown of development wouldn't go amiss, and regular readers of this column know that I'm all for a general slowdown of Java to allow the rest of the world to catch up.

Where Is Everybody?
Taking this into account, our search for souls was getting nowhere fast. We then looked at other available resources - the recruitment agencies. This turned out to be fun. At this point I'd like to curse the person or persons who felt it was a good idea to name the HTML scripting language "JavaScript." Do they realize the amount of confusion and heartache this has caused the industry?

We sent our job specification to the agencies and instantly our inbox began to fill with potential candidates. We were excited. At last, potential N-ARY employees were coming in! Our initial excitement was soon to dampen, however, as we read JavaScript over and over again. These aren't Java developers! What's going on here?

We phoned some of the agencies. We said, "Thanks, but no thanks. You haven't sent the right sort of candidates."

"But we did," came the answer. "You mean Java has nothing to do with JavaScript?"

A learning curve is still to be taken by some agencies, it would appear. Which is frightening when you think about it. Companies are trusting such agencies to be their recruitment agents. If anybody should know the difference, they should!

Once the difference was pointed out, the inbox didn't get quite the same amount of attention. And the CVs that did come through were not that great but still felt the need to ask for huge amounts of money, which I found highly amusing.

Don't get me wrong. We have no problem paying for good people. As the old saying goes, "Pay peanuts? Get monkeys." But if we have to pay for the poorly skilled, it staggers the imagination to think what highly skilled people want.

So what seemed to be an innocent enough task - to hire a couple of bodies - was turning out to be as difficult as the quest for the Holy Grail. Exasperated, we decided to look for developers beyond the bounds of our own country. We've used the services of PSI Limited in India. This large Indian development house, run by one Mukesh Patel, did us proud with a number of Java projects so our faith in overseas developers was high.

We quickly updated our job specification to include free accommodation, and sent it off to various universities around the globe. The beauty of the Internet meant this wasn't that big a task. Well, what a difference that made!

Not only did we get CVs in, but they were of a very high standard, complete with examples of work and references. They liked the salary, they liked where they would be working and they were extremely enthusiastic. The upshot? We hired a recent doctorate from Thailand who majored in Java Servlets and JDBC, and we're still choosing another from a large pool of CVs.

I think the whole thing boils down to money. There is always a discussion of how the Asian countries are polluting the industry by driving down salaries. I think this is a good thing, not a bad thing. I personally feel we are sometimes overpaid, and as a by-product some of us get complacent. We stop trying. We know we're in demand, and if we don't get on with management or if we do something wrong, we know we'll be snapped up again, probably with a pay rise.

Our industry suffers from a high staff turnover rate. Sometimes I feel I have the kiss of death with regard to people. In the last year around 70% of all the people I have built up a rapport with have left their companies and moved on. It's funny on the one hand but extremely frustrating on the other. Surely this continual moving about can't be doing the industry as a whole any good. Something has to give.

Back to Loyalty
Back to our trait of the month, loyalty. Are people no longer loyal to their companies? When the going gets tough, it's too easy to move. In our world a company's greatest asset is its employees. We develop virtual products, software, which has to be maintained and further enhanced. Changing the team all the time isn't healthy, for the company or the end client. I don't think it's a case of the company needing to try harder to keep their staff. After all, there's a limit to the salary you can pay one person.

So I welcome this new influx of people that are keen, enthusiastic and above all looking to work for the love of it as opposed to the dollar. That is, of course, until they discover how the world operates and we lose them, and have to start this whole process over again!

About the Author
Alan Williamson is CEO of N-ARY Limited, a UK-based Java software company specializing solely in JDBC and Servlets. He recently completed his second book, which focuses on Java Servlets. Alan can be reached at [email protected] (www.n-ary.com).

 

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