Interview: Manpower's CEO on paranoia

Jeff Joerres is chairman and CEO of Milwaukee-based Manpower, an US$11.8 billion staffing services company that counts among its clients 98 of the Fortune 100 companies. Joerres was a keynote speaker at the Information Technology Association of America's National IT Workforce Convocation here Monday. He spoke with Computerworld about some of the more controversial staffing issues that IT professionals face.

Q: With operations in 61 countries, do you see IT staffing as fundamentally a global issue or a national issue?

A: We [in the U.S.] cannot rely on the import of talent, particularly as it relates to knowledge jobs. However, the U.S. is not alone in that. Singapore has the same challenge; the U.K., France and Holland have the challenge. So no doubt, if you were to look out over many years, one could say we will reach a perfect state of equilibrium, where there will be trading back and forth of the right talent. But you know what? Between here and that equilibrium is probably a few wars. It won't be that easy.

Q: What's your response to the unemployed U.S. IT worker who resents the fact that the government is issuing H-1B visas to import IT talent?

A: We have to continue it at a certain level, albeit maybe at a smaller one, but the visa policy must continue. We have to bring talent into the organization. [Unemployed U.S. IT workers] may not have the right skills. They may not have the mobility. When push comes to shove, they're not going to move to Des Moines. Someone from India might say, 'I'm an SAP programmer, I'll move to Des Moines for three years.' So there is a geographical imbalance, and the skills now have become more and more discrete.

I might add, and it's a bit controversial, we must always watch out for our workers [with respect to them] having the best attitude. I think attitude is going to be more and more part of the decision process in [hiring].

Q: The inference is that foreign workers might have a better work ethic or work attitude than U.S. workers.

A: Yes, in some cases, that's true. In other cases, it's not true. We still have high productivity. But we have to live in paranoia. Because if you're not paranoid, you become complacent.

Q: What's your view on the findings in the 2002 National Workforce Study that the ITAA released here?

A: I personally see that the tech support [positions and] network administrators are going to be in high demand. You will never take away some of the top application people -- that's what drives innovation, that's what [enables] companies to save costs through technology. But you've got to have people to install it, and you've got to have people to maintain it. So I looked at the survey, and I thought many things are on target. I'm not sure that it showed the kind of view that the non-IT companies are looking at of how they're going to use IT. They're ramping up to use IT to finish [IT projects that] Y2k started. They're not interested in starting a three-to-five-year major project.

Q: I expected to see more of an emphasis on security in the ITAA study.

A: It was pretty far down the list. My guess is that the whole issue hasn't settled in, and it will settle in when you have a major security breach. Then it moves to the top.

Q: After working with Chicago-based Arthur Andersen LLP for 25 years, Manpower last month switched to New York-based PricewaterhouseCoopers as its independent auditor. What's your advice for someone who works for Arthur Andersen, or for a company in the position that Arthur Andersen finds itself in after the Enron scandal? Should he jump ship?

A: I think you have to look very closely at your position within the firm, knowing that whatever option you may see in the short term probably will not be the one that pans out. If you are in a position in the firm where you can continue to ride through some of those ups and downs, it probably could be a good place to stay. If you're in a different position, where you may not have the book of clients that some of the other partners have, you may not have some of the invaluable, hard-to-find, irreplaceable kinds of skills. I think it's fair to say that you should be looking.

Our switch from Andersen to [PricewaterhouseCoopers] had nothing to do at all with the quality of the partners. It was only about, look, we're in 61 countries, there's going to be confusion out there, and our audit committee just didn't want to do that. And I'm fully supportive of that. But when it comes to the Andersen people, there are some talented people, and some of the most talented people will have the best opportunities for a lateral [move], if not a promotion, if they move sooner rather than later.

Q: What's the one IT staffing issue or concern that you most commonly hear from your clients?

A: That there is still a complete reluctance on the part of senior management to want to do anything with IT. There is still this Y2k hangover. I feel as though there is an attitude [among senior managers who say], 'IT is extremely important, it gives me an awful lot of savings. But I still can't feel that real trust that the money I'm putting in, which is always [increasing], is really coming back. So I'm going to hold off for a while.'

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