Pay to play

It's acceptable dogma in Australia that there is a skills shortage in IT. Actually it's acceptable dogma wherever you are in the world, including the US. You'd be hard pressed to find a person in the corporate world willing to argue against it for fear of immediate ridicule.

There are also few journalists willing to critically appraise the regular round of statements from recruitment firms, research organisations, and politicians either. Far easier to play it up, create some dramatic headlines and move on.

Therefore, let me take it upon myself to be the fly in the ointment, with the extreme-sounding position that there simply isn't a skills shortage at all.

A shortage presumably means you can't find the requisite person for the job at hand. What I find amazing about this is that IT people are some of the most mobile corporate workers ever to exist. They jump from job to job, country to country, chasing more and more money.

So what are these skills that are so obscure that you can't find this person anywhere in the world? If there is a brain drain away from Australia, why not turn it round? We have the additional benefit of a superb lifestyle. IT workers in other countries and many ex-Australians would dearly love to come here if they could get something near the remuneration they get in the US or Europe.

Ah, now we reach the crunch points. People from other countries are going to cost a lot of money and getting them here is going to take some time and a lot of effort.

I've discussed the cost issue many times with IT managers and am convinced that substantially higher salaries could be offered. Salaries are not a high enough percentage of the IT spend to make most projects unfeasible, but even if they were, then that wouldn't be a skill shortage, rather it would be a comment on the viability of the project. Yes, it is all basic supply and demand. The demand will drop as the price of skills rises. So where's the shortage?

Perhaps there's a resistance to offering an employee substantially more than the bosses earn. That's simple shortsightedness and ironically could lead to the decision to contract out at even more cost.

Some IT managers have said to me that their shortage problems are more about finding someone in time to meet project deadlines. Now I'll concede that, within the context of a project, that could be called a skills shortage or even a skills crisis, but I'd argue that it's only a temporary effect requiring a few tactical decisions regarding the project.

Other IT managers have said to me that they are looking for skills that haven't developed yet. They're moving to new technologies and the people just aren't trained up. Now that's sounding more like a real skills shortage.

But there will always be new equipment coming on stream. Continuous training is part and parcel of the industry. To present the need to train staff on new technology as a skills shortage at a national level is simply passing the buck.

There is no skills shortage "crippling our knowledge economy", just a lot of tight-ass company managers trying to do IT on the smell of an oily rag.

Are you a supporter of the skills shortage theory, or do you find it oh so dreary? E-mail your view now to richard_wood@idg.com.au. For publication unless otherwise indicated.

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