Thursday, 1 July 2010

The Recruitment Problem

The computer industry talks of there being a shortage of skilled people and that it is not attracting enough new people into what is a creative and innovative career. In this blog, I am going to argue that the computer industry and especially recruitment agencies are partially the cause of their own problems, and that the roots of the problem stem from the measurement systems that we (not just in the industry) use for performance and advancement.

Let me explain.

The computing industry claims to have a very short half life for the technologies. A half life which seems to get shorter each year. This technology half life, they claim means that the knowledge required to remain in the industry also changes rapidly leading to the need to retrain people or to the releasing of experienced people who no longer have the skills that the industry requires. As a result, the half life of people in the industry is possibly less than 15 years or may be even 10 years. I am sure there is research on this phenomenon but I don't have any that I can reference at this time. I know of too many people, including myself, who have been told that we couldn't work with the new technology despite having evidence of having learnt new technologies quicker than new comers to the industry and exceeding their performance even though they were trained on the new technologies.

Having been working with computers for over 30 years, I know that the technology does change but that the principles and concepts on which the technology is built have moved far more slowly. I would go further and say that many of the undergraduate teaching programmes are teaching the same concepts and principles that I learnt when I did my BSc in the early 1970s. Yes, the technologies are different but the foundational principles are the same. This is despite a need to revise some of the ways of conceptual thinking particularly for some of the programming paradigms. I make this last comment based on my own research into the ways that practitioners are aware of object-oriented concepts.

When the industry claims that there are not people with the technology skills, they are writing off thousands of people who have the conceptual understanding to move with these technologies and driving them out of the industry further compounding the skill shortage.

But the message of rejection isn't to experienced people only. The industry continually seeks to employee people with experience thus placing many new graduates on the unemployable list. The industry argues that the universities should be giving these graduates the experience without realising that no academic programme can give students the equivalent of five years of experience in a three year academic programme. So as well as discarding experienced people, the industry is sending a negative message to new comers about there ability to enter the industry.

The industry needs to change its measures of what they expect from new recruits and recognise the skills and conceptual knowledge of those already in the industry.

A further negative message sent to new recruits is the employment of teaching assistants and research associates on short term contracts. Since coming to the UK, I have been employed on this basis and have come across many others who are employed on the same basis. Some of these people are rated as the best teachers and are in front of classes and working with potential new recruits to the industry.

When students ask these teaching assistants what they will be teaching next year, they say “the may not be here next year since their contract runs out at the end of the teaching semester.” What message does this send to new recruits? It sends a message of a lack of stability in the industry.

Part of the cause of this problem is the success measures used in universities. The better teachers often don't have the best research records. They have focused on teaching. They aren't wanted in the universities. The universities are doing exactly what industry is doing and discarding good people because they don't measure up on a scale that has no relevance to teaching. New positions in universities are for those with a research record and who will help the university improve its ranking. They don't seem to realise that for one university to rise up the rankings other universities have to go down the rankings. All compete for a dwindling population of ranked researchers who can bring in research money and raise the overall ranking score of the university.

There is a need for the best teachers to be delivering a message of confidence about the students future and potential for employment. I know that I can not deliver that message of confidence because I don't have any employment security. I know of many others in exactly the same position. The result is that the industry has even more difficulty recruiting people.

I will go one step further with the argument about measures and suggest that in western capitalist cultures, we are using the wrong measures of success. This starts with measures based on growth. Even if we assumed resources are unlimited, growth as it is talked about is not possible for all nations. At the conference that I have just attended, I heard a speaker talk about the host country's desire for a surplus (i.e. exporting more than they are importing). All nations are aiming for a surplus just as all businesses are aiming for profit and households are aiming for surplus. But how can every country export more than it imports or all businesses and households have more income than expenditure. The sums don't add up. This is basic arithmetic. At best, all countries can export as much as they import but this doesn't address issues of inequality or resource shortages.

I could talk of other measures of performance that also have a fundamental problem because the measure only looks at one side of the equation and forget the other side of the equation because that is someone else's problem.

The computer industry and our economic champions all fail to see that they are the cause of their own dilemma because they are stuck in a way of thinking that blinds them to the problems that cause the dilemma. Until we question how we measure success and progress, and look for new measures that address issues of sustainability and equality, both the computer industry and our economic systems are doomed to failure and I suspect that this will happen sooner than most people expect.

To address these issues, we need to find ways of challenging the conceptual thinking of a large percentage of the worlds populations especially those in leadership and look outside the western or developed world for solutions. I say this having just had the experience of the great warmth and friendship of the Turkish people as I attended a conference in Ankara. But I fear that the pursuit of western wealth and practices will destroy that spirit of unity, peace, and friendship.

Don't lose the concern for others and the desire to build a better life for all.

Shalom, go in peace and fullness of life.

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