Hiring for All Hours

FRAMINGHAM (04/17/2000) - Say goodbye to the traditional business day. Now that networks are central to companies and the Web provides a 24-hour link to customers, suppliers and employees, IT professionals are needed around the clock. In a market already painfully thin on IT talent, what's a network executive to do?

"I don't think there's any magic to it," says Ken Starkey, executive vice president of telecommunications for Fidelity Investment Systems in Boston, the IT arm of financial services giant Fidelity Investments Inc. "The 24-7 aspect just exacerbates the problem. It adds to the overall challenge of attracting talented people."

Fidelity is a prime example of the type of company for which this issue looms large. The firm has been facing radical changes in the way it interacts with its customer base. As Starkey puts it, Fidelity is a brick-and-mortar company that's transitioning to a "click-and-mortar" model.

Gone are the days when the company could perform the occasional major network maintenance during nonbusiness hours. Today, the network must run efficiently around the clock. That means having a staff to make sure all mission-critical applications - such as all-important e-commerce systems - are humming along.

Getting IT pros to take a job on the overnight shift requires some creativity.

Starkey acknowledges that he has to offer a pay differential or some other kind of incentive to attract workers to such nontraditional shifts.

The Internet has also increased the need for night time project managers, quality-assurance professionals and network security staff at Bear Stearns, a financial services firm in New York. The company has doubled its overnight IT staffing in the past two years, says Don Henderson, managing director of voice, video and data services for the company. Bear Stearns often asks its trainees to work the night shift, but when the position calls for more experienced IT workers, the business typically offers a pay differential of as much as 15 percent.

The pressure of finding overnight IT workers often falls upon staffing firms.

Jim McNabb, president and CEO of Staffing Technologies in Alpharetta, Georgia, says round-the-clock IT staffing has radically changed his business. He says he's filling 30 percent more overnight positions than he did two years ago. Of the 30 to 40 IT contractors his firm places each month, about 20 percent are filling night shifts.

Moreover, the shortage of qualified IT workers has contributed to the increasingly casual nature of the IT industry, forcing McNabb to drop preconceptions he might have held in the past. "Employers are letting them come in with hair down their backs and tongue rings," he says. "Two years ago, I wouldn't have let those people in our door."

Some experts insist companies don't have to sweat about 24-hour IT coverage.

Consulting firms such as Arthur Andersen advise clients to depend on service providers to host their IT infrastructures, enabling their IT departments to tend solely to internal applications.

That's precisely what San Francisco company Levi Strauss has done. Rather than beef up its global IT staff, the company has chosen to rely on a combination of remote technologies and outsourcing of Web site hosting for round-the-clock reliability.

As a result, the company's overnight IT staffing has shrunk during the past five years. Today, Levi Strauss employs just seven night-shift workers, all of whom work in the company's network operations center in Westlake, Texas.

But even filling just those seven positions required special considerations:

Levi's night shift employees enjoy flexible hours, a three-and-a-half-day work week, casual dress and pay differential.

The message to IT employees is clear: In the Internet economy, they hold all the cards. And those willing to work the night shift have all the chips, too.

Kontzer is a freelance writer in San Jose. He can be reached at tony@goodink.com.

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