Reshaping the talent pool

09 Oct 2006
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Juniper Networks, a maker of high-end routers, needs 600 technical staff in Bangalore this year. Worksoft Creative Software Technology, an outsourcing firm in Beijing with clients like IBM, intends to hire 850-plus engineers in 2006 and another thousand next year.

For the two firms, at either end of Asia, the problem is the same: the new hires just aren't there.
'There is a disjoint between what skills the companies need and what universities impart to the tech students,' says Ashish Sharma, a technology analyst at consultant Arthur D. Little in Singapore.

A common complaint is that universities in the region neglect soft skills and are too theoretical in their approach, placing general concepts over hands-on training. In top universities in China, for example, 'the traditional education system doesn't emphasize practical experience,' says Kevin Liu, EVP at Worksoft.

Lu Ellen Schafer, executive director of Global Savvy, a California-based cross-cultural training company whose clients include HP, IBM and Juniper, notes: 'What MNCs are finding in India is that some of their 'freshers', new college grads, are not as polished as they would like. The presentation skills of some of them leave a lot to be desired.'

Clear communication skills, Schafer adds, are especially critical on virtual teams, which many MNC employees now work on. 'I spend a lot of my time training young engineers in India, China and other places in how to speak up, take initiative, offer suggestions, present virtually and influence globally.'

Edward Mandla, who runs Smartforce Solutions in Australia, which specializes in workforce strategies around acquiring, training and retaining staff, sees the skills shortage as a product of the IT industry being in transition. 'IT is moving from the backroom into the boardroom, and there is a strong need for IT workers to have soft skills, like presentation skills, teamwork skills and the ability to put together a business case.'

'Twenty years ago our industry was all about programming in a dark windowless room, but we have had a major change and universities have been extremely slow to get off the mark and embrace these soft skills, and in fact a couple of heads of school went public this year and said it might actually be beyond a university to be able to do that,' he explained.

'There's a disconnect between what is available and what is in demand - our universities are still pumping out programmers and less than 20% of the industry is now programming.'

A study by McKinsey in October 2005 on China's looming talent shortage stated that the country's pool of young engineers considered suitable for work in an MNC is about 160,000 - no larger than the United Kingdom's. This despite the fact that China produced about 600,000 engineering grads last year, compared to 70,000 in the US. The study blamed China's problems on a 'bias toward theory' and neglect of practical training in universities.

In Hong Kong, Agnes Mak, SVP for mobile IT at Sunday, observes the difficulties she faces in hiring talent lie around the lack of business acumen. 'Most young professionals are technically sound but lack the ability to apply that knowledge to solve real business problems,' she says.

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