Skill mix is 'key to IT hiring'

A recent poll indicates that a combination of technical and 'soft' skills are key to successful IT recruitment

Respondents to a recent IT Manager channel poll run on ZDNet Australia have spoken of the need for a mix of technical and 'soft skills' when hiring IT staff.

Communication skills that fit in with the skillsets of other team members was the criteria one respondent argued are key. "They must fit into the team well to ensure that we can perform," the respondent argued.

Likewise, IT consultant Jeff Kemp said that he learned very early in his IT management career that focusing on satisfying the technical skills requirement above all else mostly resulted in disappointing recruitment.

"IT team members need to interact effectively with customers and be team players," Kemp argued. "The day of the back-room boffin have long gone. Technical skills can always be verified outside of the interview during reference checks or skills testing. This is the relatively easy part of the process."

In the interview itself, Kemp said that he liked to focus on the person. "The interview (that) I undertake, usually in partnership with HR, is loosely structured with some standard questions," he said. "The focus of these questions is to open up communications to share with the applicant details of the environment but equally important to assess the motivation, potential, personality and soft skills of the applicant."

Kemp said that on several occasions he has had the opportunity to employ staff who didn't have the primary technical skills required but had the soft skills. "Many times those who already had the technical skills -- but not the soft skills -- were much less effective generally, moving on after 12 to 18 months for various reasons," he said.

Making a careful assessment of candidates and having a detailed job specification are aspects that recruitment consultants argue are an important aspect of the hiring process.

Grant Montgomery, managing director at search firm EL Consult, said that a proper job specification includes details such as what the key result areas of the job are, what is the reporting structure, as well as responsibilities.

"Often people employ on the basis of a position becoming vacant, or the fact that they're overworked," Montgomery said. "They don't really finely specify what that (new employee) is supposed to do."

Nor are the consequences of making a bad hire slight. Montgomery said it may be difficult to get rid of an unsuitable hire, and there may also be resulting team problems or costly system or design faults.

Montgomery said that internal hiring may be used in some companies, to give opportunity to existing staff and encourage them to perform better knowing that internal promotions are available.

"It requires the company to assess what it has internally, rather than having people ignored or hidden under rocks -- people who have got special skills that they're not aware of," he said. "(Internal recruitment) allows the (candidate) to identify their own skills, which may not be relevant to their current job in that organisation."

When actually making the hiring decision Montgomery warned that it's important to make sure that the hiring manager is not just choosing personality traits that they like, as opposed to traits which would benefit the company. "There is a tendency sometimes to choose someone from your own background, because it seems easier," he advised. "Note down the pros and cons of people in the interview, and thoroughly check that out in reference checking."

Vincent Teubler, managing director at IT recruitment firm VTR Consulting, said assessing the best candidates, both internally and externally, is important when IT managers are looking to make a new hire.

Teubler believes that in the current IT job market there was a real capacity for employers to pull the right people out of the market if they went through the process thoroughly. "(Potential employers) are able to access candidates they previously had no hope in hell of gaining," he said.

According to Teubler, the time a manager spends in the interview, and the costs associated with setting up a new permanent employee in an organisation meant that it was important to get the decision right.

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