IBM i Skills Shortage: Now You See It, Now You Don’t
March 23, 2015 Dan Burger
A month ago when IT Jungle reported that CEO Mike Lawrie was blaming a lack of IBM i skilled professionals for a revenue shortfall at Computer Sciences Corp, the volume on this topic has been turned up considerably. That’s good. This is a discussion that needs to be heard. In the just-released IBM i Marketplace Survey, half the respondents listed IBM i skills depletion as a top concern. Much of this discussion is defined by whether a shortage exists or whether companies are doing a poor job with workforce management.
“There’s only a shortage if you need them and can’t get them,” joked Chuck Ackerman, vice president of information technology at Lamps Plus. “It’s similar to the comment that it’s a recession if you are working and a depression if you are out of work.”
In other words, it depends a lot on point of view and perspective.
“I would not say there is a shortage,” Ackerman said during a phone interview with IT Jungle last week. “Twenty years ago, you might get 20 applicants for a job opening. There are fewer applicants now, but we’ve not been in a situation where we couldn’t find someone for a position. We just hired someone in February and we hired someone at the end of 2014. We were able to find people. The pool is smaller, but I would not say it is impossible to find people.”
The open positions were for senior-level IBM i programmer/analysts created by employee retirements.
Ackerman said the IBM i staff at Lamps Plus tend to be long-term employees. There’s not a lot of turnover on his IBM i staff.
“When they start getting toward retirement, we start working on replacements. It’s a succession plan. We don’t hire for the short term; we expect people to last a long time.”
The mismanagement of IT workforce gets a lot of heat in discussions about skills shortages. In the case of Lawrie, who spent 27 years at IBM running, among other things, its sales and distribution business, he admitted that “execution missteps” related to personnel recruitment were partly to blame for the difficulties experienced in recruiting and filling positions in a hurry. Other factors he singled out included a tight labor market and the requirement for specialized skills. The result was a quarterly financial report that did not meet expectations.
“Finding the right skills is not just an IBM i issue,” Ackerman said. “Programming languages change rapidly and it takes a commitment to learning new things. Companies tend to latch on to a certain language and even a certain version of a language. It happens in .NET and Java environments, too. The cost of keeping current and finding the right people is everywhere.”
Having a budget to support the cost of an experienced programmer is important to finding the person you are looking for, Ackerman emphasized. Experienced RPG programmers are not more expensive than any other experienced programmers. Java programmers, he notes, are way more expensive.
Ric Piecuch is the vice president of IT at MES Vision. Like Lamps Plus, it’s a Los Angeles area company. And like Ackerman, Piecuch doesn’t feel the pinch of an IBM i skills shortage.
“You can complain that there are no programmers or you can create solutions to the problem,” Piecuch said as he views the current market. “Compared to getting a VB resource, yeah, there’s a shortage of IBM i skilled people. There’s not a shortage now, but without a skills pipeline from colleges, eventually there will be a shortage.”
In recent years, Piecuch has been filling junior programmer positions and providing significant on the job training. He says they can quickly get up to speed on IBM i-related tasks.
He’s filled a junior programmer slot, in at least one instance, with an individual without a tech school education, opting for training that person as an iSeries operator and then gradually teaching programming languages. He looks for entry-level people with RPG skills, but it’s rare that he finds them. That doesn’t really concern him. If the job candidate has junior-level PHP and HTML skills, he figures he can teach him or her RPG. He also looks to other departments at MES Vision for staff that may have potential to excel in IT.
“My sales pitch is ‘You’re coming in with something that can help modernize my staff in terms of teaching modern languages. And you’re going to learn some legacy back-end stuff and how to support systems. It will lift your marketability tenfold.'”
Piecuch said he has management support for his employee development plan. An important part of that are the “pay bumps that keep junior programmers at our shop.”
The type of person Piecuch is looking for supersedes the resume of skills and education.
“It’s finding someone who is alive and willing to learn and wants to grow–someone who fits in with the team and has communication skills,” he said. “To me, that’s the hardest requirements to find.”
A skills shortage is sometimes defined by open positions that go unfilled because of a long list of requirements that describe the ideal candidate according to skill sets. This is what Ackerman refers to as “false requirements.” It’s the wrong way to go about hiring from his perspective.
“I never worry about the skills per se,” Ackerman explained. “A new person will have to learn about the organization, how people work, and the applications. There is a lot to learn and skills are just one thing. I want to find the right person to fit in and that presumes they have the ability to learn. Skills I can buy. Time and money can build the skill set if the person has a team-oriented personality and the will to learn. Skills are changing all the time. If someone doesn’t have the right skill set to allow them to learn new things, then I’m probably not going to be interested in looking at them as a job candidate.”
Ackerman described the IT environment at Lamps Plus as dynamic not static.
A long list of skills is never the first thing Ackerman is looking for. He’ll tell you what’s important to him is finding someone with an appetite to learn new things.
With regard to the IBM i Marketplace Survey that notes a considerable concern about a dwindling supply of IBM i skills to replace retiring professionals, an online discussion of the IBM i Marketplace Survey will be taking place Thursday, March 26. Industry experts Timothy Prickett Morgan, Ian Jarman, Alison Butterill, and Tom Huntington will be adding insights to the statistical information provided in the survey, which reflects the attitudes and aptitudes of 350 IBM i shops. Registration for that dialog on the IBM i community can be completed by following this link. It’s free to anyone who wants to listen in and begins at 10 a.m. Central time.