Tag Archives: Employment

Should the Technical FTE Role be Dead?

At one point in our history, it was commonplace for a worker to join a company upon leaving school and stay with them until retirement. There was a perceived loyalty between employer and employee.

Life was good … or was it?

Did the employer really care about the educational or professional “growth” of the employee? Conversely, did the employee continue to bring new ideas and energy to the workplace after 20 years on the job?

As the Baby Boomers (post WW-II babies) entered the workforce in the 70s, jobs were plentiful. “Job hopping” became a common term as Silicon Valley companies competed for skilled laborers. The recession of the early ’80s caused many of those workers to search for the “secure” corporate work-life of their parents, only to look again for that “brass ring” as the economic carousel took another spin around with the tech/Dot-com boom of the 90s.

Now, as recovery begins again, should technology workers be looking for the “security” of a long-term, single employer job? Should employers look to beef up their internal workforce again or drive their business with contractors?

For the employer, the positive financial tipping point for the FTE option appears to lie somewhere during or after the third year of employment. An excellent financial analysis of several employment scenarios was produced in 2009 by a team at Greythorn, a subsidiary of the FiveTen Group, an international recruiting/contracting firm. A link to the associated slide presentation is provided here.

For the worker, the financial benefits of contracting depend largely on the skills of the individual and the business choices he or she makes along the way. The keys to contractor success are:

  1. have something to sell, i.e. a skill that is in demand,
  2. set the price appropriate to quality/skill level and market demand, and
  3. market the deliverable well.

Being a successful contractor is not rocket science. It “just” requires effort.

Beyond the financials, the real question is: Should the long term, full-time employee (FTE) model be replaced by shorter-term IT workers?

The answer may lie buried somewhere between the speed of technology change and the inability of managers to properly project their needs. Certainly, in a stable work industry, managers can assess attrition and train internal staff to fill those empty positions and hire new employees into “entry-level” positions. Traditional, predictable, effective.

As the speed of technology change increases, it becomes more difficult to project needs several years in advance. The window to build expert skill levels within the internal resource pool decreases. Especially when “bottom line” costs are scrutinized, training seems to be an easy choice for managers to move into “next year’s budget”. Failure to invest in training at the right time, leaves an employer few options. They have to depend on contractors.

The workers, on the other hand, bear a significant responsibility for their own fate. Train, study and be aware of technology/industry demands or become unemployed. While the cause-and-effect is obvious, it’s commonly ignored. It’s not a life-lesson taught in high schools or undergraduate degree programs, but it should be. It is the worker’s responsibility to stay current with skills that are in demand. Education is not something that ends in your early 20s. Education a life-long process.

The manager may be asleep-at-the-switch, but the worker, who will be impacted most with a layoff, must push for the technical training to stay current and to be prepared for “the next big thing”. That training might be on-the-job (e.g. a “stretch” work assignment), outside reading/study or a volunteer work effort.

Similarly, contractors and short-duration workers must include training and/or growth work placements to continually enhance their marketability.

Who benefits from this employment model shift?

The employer benefits with a more nimble, up-to-date technology work force. The worker benefits by taking personal responsibility for his or her continuing technology education.

So what happens to the Tech FTE?

Some technical long term employees include management skills in their training. They move up and out of the technical resource pool. Others, especially those who fail to stay current, move to the dead-end, but, at the time, necessary jobs that all companies seem to have.

The risk that many companies and public agencies face is related to the long-term employees, who fail to continue their education/training but continue to “occupy” their desks. Some are retained because they possess specific subject matter knowledge about the installed systems. Others maintain their grip on their chairs by doing just what is required to get by. While I am a strong supporter of unions and their role in protecting worker rights, I am not a supporter of a seniority system that protects poor performance.

Say Good-Bye 

In my opinion, it’s time to be realistic. The technical FTE position is not good for the employer or for the worker. It builds a false expectation of stability within the tech workforce and, to paraphrase Karl Marx, the Tech FTE role “is the opiate of the [tech] masses”.

Business needs to acknowledge their inability to maintain long-standing technical work forces and be honest with their employees,

Stay current or you will be gone!

Harsh words, but they are a reality.

Tech workers need to step up to the plate, turn off the TV and continue their education/training. They need to stop blaming immigrants and younger workers for their employment problems. With age can come perspective, but perspective without current knowledge is of little value.

Today’s tech workers need to build their own futures and not look to others to do it for them.

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Background Materials / Blog Postings

“Those Job-Hopping Baby Boomers”, by Monika Hamori, Sept 2010, http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2010/09/job_hopping_do_boomers_and_mil.html

Cost Analysis … The Real Costs of Contractors versus Full Time Employees, A Greythorn White Paper (part of the Five Ten Group),  1Q 2009, http://www.slideshare.net/rprosio/REAL-Costs-of-Contractors-1075420

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Aside

I keep hearing that employers prefer to select younger applicants over older ones because the younger generation is more “in-tune with today’s technologies.” Please excuse my personal response, but that’s such a crock that I can hardly contain myself. It’s … Continue reading

Why Companies Aren’t Getting the Employees They Need

In October, Dr. Peter Cappelli, director of the Center for Human Resources at The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, wrote an interesting article for the Wall Street Journal, “Why Companies Aren’t Getting the Employees They Need”. In it, Dr. Cappelli noted,

With an abundance of workers to choose from, employers are demanding more of job candidates than ever before. They want prospective workers to be able to fill a role right away, without any training or ramp-up time. In other words, to get a job, you have to have that job already. It’s a Catch-22 situation for workers–and it’s hurting companies and the economy.

In a previous posting, I highlighted that same conundrum … you have to have job experience to get a job … there’s no starting point. The article generated such a strong reader response, particularly because he identified the business community as being at fault, not the educational system. He followed up with another article, further explaining how corporations use “automated screening” of job applicants and how they need to accept responsibility for the lack of planning (for lead times) in obtaining skilled workers. With regard to lead times, he commented,

Silicon Valley pretty much invented the “free agent” model of hiring for new skills rather than training and letting workers go once those skills aren’t needed.

Dr Cappelli feels that it is the responsibility of the companies and corporations to build the skills of their employees. Several business bloggers took exception to Dr. Cappelli’s statements. One of whom, Cheryl Oldham, Vice President, U.S. Forum for Policy Innovation, US Chamber of Commerce (USCOC) and Board Member of the USCOC’s Institute for a Competitive Workforce, felt that the problem did not belong to the companies, but to the American educational system:

If the problem were as simple as tweaking some hiring practices and increasing workplace training, it would be done by now. … Too many of our children are leaving high school without the knowledge and skills they need to be successful in college or the workforce.

For those of us who benefited from the consulting/technology apprenticeship programs of the 1980’s and 90’s, a response to her statement might be, “It was simple and it was effective.”

This discussion progressed into a radio broadcast discussion between Ms. Oldham and Dr. Cappelli, hosted by Minnesota Public Radio and reported on by Susan Seitel, in the Huffington Post. If you haven’t hear the discussion, “Why companies aren’t getting the employees they need?”, I suggest that you follow the links below and spend 45 minutes reflecting on this issue. While both participants and callers made their points, Dr. Cappelli’s conclusion was perhaps the most on target,

What employers say the want, uniformly, in the surveys for at least 25 years, is they want work-based skills. They don’t want theoretical stuff. They want work-based skills.  The best way to do that, to learn that material, is on-the-job, in an apprentice-like arrangement. … The problem that most of the workers now are having, especially [new graduates], is the application wants work experience already. In an apprenticeship-like program, the economics of this basically says what you pay people less while they get the training. That’s a perfectly reasonable thing to do. You see this also with tuition reimbursement programs. The employer pays the tuition. The student-employee goes to school on their own time, nights and weekends, and they’re co-investing.

Without focusing on the fault, he highlighted the need for a “co-investing” that needs to occur between the employee and the employer. They need to work together to develop the skills the company looks for, even if it requires unpaid or reduced pay time during that training period.

The co-investment of workers and employers is clearly defined in a mentor-apprentice program. The company provides the mentor and the apprentices provide work-products while they learn. Both groups invest time/effort. Both gain benefit.

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Dr Peter Cappelli, “Why Companies Aren’t Getting the Employees They Need”, WSJ, 24 October 2011

Dr Peter Cappelli, “’Why Companies Aren’t Getting the Employees They Need’: The Author Follows Up”, WSJ 26 October 2011

Mrs. Cheryl Oldham “Why Companies REALLY Can’t Find the Employees They Need” 3 Part blog entry, 3, 4 & 7 November 2011 [Part 2] [Part 3]

Ms. Susan Seitel, “A Skills Shortage Or Unrealistic Expectations?”, The Huffington Post, 2 December 2011

The discussion on Minnesota Public Radio, “Why companies aren’t getting the employees they need” Broadcast: Midmorning, 11/30/2011, 9:06 a.m.

I got a degree, so where’s my job?

Like many parents, I told my kids, “Study hard, go to college, pick a technical course of study and you’ll get a good job.” While that direction may have been enough in the 1980’s or 90’s, today you need to add, “Get some work experience.” In the Portland, Oregon, area, over 80% of the job openings, requiring a 2- or 4-year degree, also require previous experience.

OK, so how do you get a job to get experience if most of the jobs require experience? Think chicken-before-egg or if you’re my age, Catch-22.

This circular logic problem is a wonderful life-example for your 20-something kids, but by that time in their lives they are a little tired of hearing about life lessons. They want answers. After some struggle, they may even look to you for help. So where do you turn?

  • Internships are often a good place to gain basic levels of experience. Companies often open up summer work internships to help with heavy-lifting projects (filing, relocations, equipment swaps, etc.) that don’t require much training or expertise. Unfortunately, the intern rarely learns much beyond show-up-on-time or how-to-follow-instructions and the typical duration, 3 to 4 months, is really not enough to help land a good job.
  • Know someone who can vouch for their abilities as quick learners. A best friend’s father or mother may be helpful, especially if either is an IT manager. They might have problems with hiring their own kids, but bringing in a sharp, energetic college grad is often a plus. Unfortunately, the odds are so small of that happening that they aren’t something to depend on.

Is there a better answer?

An apprenticeship program for IT grads. Twenty years ago, these programs were common in medium-to-large consulting companies. College grads would join a consulting firm and receive several weeks of subject-specific training. If they survived that shake-out period, they would be assigned to work on a project under the direct guidance of a senior staff member. Through a combination of observation and weekly reviews, the new hire would learn a professional style and delivery, while actively contributing on a project at a client site.

This system worked well. The clients were charged a reduced rate for the “junior consultants” and the senior staff resource provided both mentorship to the “apprentices” and assurance of quality delivery to the clients.

Where are these programs today?

With the exception of a few firms, they are largely gone. They disappeared in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s with the boom of the dot-com era (demand for any talent regardless of experience) and the bust that followed. In the 2000’s, budgets were tight and job openings were few. Little energy was expended on training new workers for jobs that could be filled by qualified (often over-qualified) resources.

Today, many of these entry-level jobs are going unfilled, going to foreign workers holding H-1B visas or they are being outsourced to companies overseas.

There are, however, a few new IT apprenticeship programs starting up in the Portland area. One such initiative, Protégé Builder, is presented by a Portland consulting company, ieSolutions. It is built on a software testing framework as its core technology. I’m told that another company is operating a similar program, built on Java programmer staffing.

While these IT apprenticeship programs are small today, they hold hope for the future. Portland is rebuilding and reclaiming jobs for its community.