Global glamour

If you think finding qualified IT personnel to staff worldwide operations is difficult, try adding "must have sea legs" to the list of attributes you demand of prospective IT workers.

That's the challenge facing Jack Mencini, manager of shipboard operations at Miami-based Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. Not only must Mencini find IT employees who can manage the cruise line's onboard Windows NT- and Unix-based networked environments, but he must also find professionals who don't mind spending months at sea and living with the same people they work with.

"Many people who come into this think it's going to be a wild time, but it's really a very confined lifestyle," says Mencini.

Of course, the romantic aspects of that lifestyle can be a selling point. And Royal Caribbean has creatively leveraged its non-IT workforce to address some of its global IT needs.

"A lot of our IT workers grew up in the cruise industry in other positions, and they love the lifestyle. They show an acumen for technology. So we work to bring them along for IT positions," says Mencini.

Royal Caribbean's IT workforce of nearly 70 onboard systems managers comprises workers from the U.S., Scotland, Canada, India, England, Greece and Haiti.

Like Royal Caribbean, global businesses everywhere are forced to be creative to fill IT job openings in a market characterized by huge demand, limited supply and cultural challenges.

"IT hiring problems are absolutely not unique to the U.S. but are prevalent in developed economies around the world. There's a revolution on the demand side, but not on the education and training side, to keep up," says Harris Miller, president of the Arlington, Va.-based Information Technology Association of America (ITAA).

Though analysts say demand for IT workers is greatest in North America - resulting in well-publicized outsourcing deals in countries such as India and Ireland - shortages are felt the world over.

Meeting the demand for IT workers globally requires more than just competitive compensation packages, though these certainly are a must. Global companies must also boast strong international reputations, attractive corporate cultures, cultural sensitivity, extensive training programs and - perhaps most important - challenging IT projects that allow workers to grow in their careers.

While a company's reputation isn't the only factor in attracting IT talent, it's a great starting point, say executives responsible for global hiring.

"We are one of the largest companies in the world, with a strong heritage and a strong future in front of us," says Roger Mitchell, director of human resources for IT at Dearborn, Mich.-based Ford Motor Co., which employs 5,000 IT workers throughout the U.S., U.K., the Asia-Pacific region, South America and other parts of the globe. "The Ford name has a big impact on our ability to hire IT professionals."

Reputation is likewise a point of leverage for Unisys Corp., a Blue Bell, Pa.-based IT services provider with offices in 35 countries.

"IT people have more choices than they've ever had, and with the global economy reasonably strong, your image as an employer is more important than ever before. If you have a strong market presence in a country, it's much easier to recruit there," says Dan Guaglianone, vice president of global recruiting at Unisys.

At Memphis-based FedEx Corp., corporate image likewise goes a long way toward attracting prospective IT workers in other countries. But it's the opportunity to work on leading-edge projects that often seals the deal, says Henry Fields, vice president of IT at FedEx's Miami-based Latin America and Caribbean division.

"IT people go nuts on a lot of what we're doing, because much of our technology is customer-facing and very transaction-based rather than batch-oriented," says Fields. "They're excited about projects involving Java and HTML because many local countries don't have access to [such technologies]."

While the opportunity to work with hot technology is attractive to IT candidates, it creates a technological catch-22, says Nancy Reynolds, CIO at FedEx Canada in Toronto. "You then have to find the right skill sets to handle those technologies," she says.

For example, FedEx Canada faces challenges in hiring IT workers skilled in the technology that drives its fulfillment and logistics-oriented business. This technology hasn't penetrated Canada to the same extent as the U.S.

"We certainly have some challenges finding people with experience on the [customer relationship management] side, because CRM is the hot app right now," Reynolds says.

Because it's so close to the U.S., FedEx Canada finds another IT hiring challenge that global companies hiring in more-distant countries might not encounter. An IT worker from Singapore might hesitate at making the long trek to the U.S. But Canadians need only move across the border to take advantage of IT salaries that are, on average, 30 percent higher, says Reynolds.

It's a Small World After All

As if staffing IT jobs for worldwide operations weren't difficult enough, global companies that want to place multinational IT teams in countries where they do business face other cultural issues, says Miller. In Japan and other Asian countries, for example, "cultural, linguistic and other barriers make it difficult to get acceptance for workers brought in from the outside," he says.

Guaglianone agrees. He says companies that bring in American IT managers run the risk of alienating local workers. "U.S. companies that insist on bringing in American managers sometimes have a tough time succeeding," he says. "[Local IT workers] have a problem when the guy getting the biggest bucks on a project is American."

As for language barriers, Royal Caribbean's Mencini says it's the language of technology that's the bigger hurdle, now that English has become the planet's lingua franca.

"Our IT employees speak English, yes, but communicating technically is a different matter than conversational language," he says. "How would you like to explain an Ethernet connection in something other than your native tongue?" To reduce frustration, Mencini says, management works with employees to strengthen their language skills.

Despite these challenges, many global companies say the world's move toward a digital society has significantly decreased cultural problems, language barriers and the IT skills gap that many encountered in the past.

"Any time you go into a different country, there are some cultural issues that you have to respect, but the issues aren't major," says Fields.

As for differences in IT skills by region, Fields and others say the divide is almost nonexistent.

"In my case, it doesn't matter whether it's Puerto Rico or Brazil. The technology base is the same," Fields says. "They all want to plug in and show their aptitude and be a strong player in the global market."

Gilhooly is a freelance writer in Falmouth, Maine.

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