The Members' debate

February 2016

Screwdriver and screwIn the BCS member's LinkedIn group there has been recent debate on the topic 'Is IT recruitment broken?' Much comment from BCS members, including me, is to the effect that it is. So what’s the problem? Steve Burrows FBCS CITP, Vice Chair of BCS ELITE, looks at some of the issues.

A quick skim through the posts of members retelling their experiences or perceptions makes it clear that there are multiple problems, including generic job descriptions, low recruitment agency margins, poor employer / recruiter communication, inappropriate skills on graduating from IT education, algorithmic CV matching, poor recruiter knowledge of IT skills, and the IT buzzword checklist.

Ploughing through these posts one can infer that there is one big composite issue - recruiters commonly don’t understand what employers need and therefore compose their job advertisements and candidate shortlists by using technology-specific qualifiers instead of telling us candidates what business and technology outcomes the employer is hoping for from their new hire and enabling us to offer value. The problems can be linked to form a clear chain of cause and effect:

  • Employers are poor at articulating their complex needs for technical staff, not least because they see the world from their own viewpoint (surely everyone does IT our way);
  • Recruiters don’t deeply understand core IT skills and can’t afford the time to really dig into what the employers need and can’t afford the time for much manual screening, so initial screening is carried out by database search matching keywords to reduce cost;
  • Keywords are based upon manufacturer technologies / IT products, so CVs which match the technology / product keyword screening process pass through to manual screening;
  • CVs which don’t match keywords are rarely considered by the recruiter or presented to the employer unless there are a few keywords for the skillset required;
  • Employers achievement of desired recruitment outcomes are more by chance than design.

Of course the big irony here is that we IT people designed the database screening systems upon which the recruitment industry depends.

Personally, when acting as an employer, for the past couple of decades I have told all recruitment agencies not to filter candidates - they still provide value to me because they have large candidate databases and effective advertising - but I have scrutinised thousands of CVs which recruiters would have rejected in preference to allowing a recruiter with little or no real knowledge of IT make uneducated judgements about who might be fit to join my team.

In consequence, I have repeatedly recruited some of the most unlikely candidates who have gone on to prove themselves to be quite exceptional.

Mercedes instead of a Rolls?

So what’s to be done? In IT recruitment, due to the dependency on technology keywords, we have a situation akin to a chauffeur being filtered out by a recruiter or employer because his experience is in driving a Mercedes instead of a Rolls-Royce. The reality is that we are not going to change the behaviour of the recruitment industry, they depend upon automated screening and their clients won’t accept higher fees, so there must be another way.

Similarly, we’re not going to change employers’ behaviour in expecting recruiters to be telepathic and to understand the nuances of our technological staff needs. What we can do is to change the keywords, the vocabulary of selection.

Many of us BCS members have bemoaned that neither recruiters nor employers understand what MBCS or CITP mean in expressing the competence and knowledge base of an IT or computing professional, and the occurrence of job adverts specifying a desire for either is very rare. Instead we see adverts for people holding Microsoft or Cisco technical qualifications, or the BCS Professional Certificate in Business Analysis.

Hang on, what was that last one? Yep, I regularly see job adverts asking for a BCS qualification - just not for ‘technical’ roles. This is the proof that we can change recruiters’ vocabulary.

Employers don’t buy BCS members, they want software developers, database administrators, systems administrators, network engineers and so on. Adverts seeking candidates with the BCS certificates in business analysis, testing and ITIL service management are not uncommon, and the CESG cyber security certification appears to be catching on fast.

We have already demonstrably succeeded in defining some of the recruitment vocabulary for the softer skills in our profession, so why not the core technical skills?

I know that many members will have first learned their technical skillsets at university, but computer science and information technology degrees typically have broad curriculums, having a CompSci degree does not mark you out as a specialist professional.

Those who learned their basic skills outside of university have even less to signify to potential employers that they are credible in their claimed skillset, so it’s hardly surprising that employers and recruiters have resorted to hiring based upon manufacturer’s certifications, industry buzzwords and experience with specific products, which are often significantly irrelevant to the fulfilment of their business needs.

Perhaps we at BCS should consider developing certification for some of the following, which would be vendor or product independent and convey to employers that we have a comprehensive understanding of how to achieve what they actually want:

  • Software development;
  • Systems administration;
  • Database administration;
  • Systems architecture;
  • Network engineering;
  • IT management.

Some might argue that these are still too broad, for example software development, but would you rather employ a developer who understands good practice and will build robust, reliable, sustainable software, or one who can hack together something in C#? Certifications could be qualified, for instance the professional certificate in software development could be specific to Microsoft, or *nix, or the web, or embedded - but I’m not sure that this specificity would be necessary.

The effect of adding these certifications to the recruitment vocabulary could be that employers seek the professional certification foremost, see the specific technology familiarity as a ‘nice to have’, and develop a greater awareness of, and preference for, BCS member candidates.

There will be some who groan at the thought of another qualification, but for those who have come into the profession via formal academic education there should not be a lot to learn, preparation for the exam would be more a revision exercise that helps the candidate to ensure they have the breadth of knowledge for the particular specialism, whilst for the unqualified it would provide an opportunity to put their core skills into a structured framework that helps them to round out their knowledge and to talk with more formally trained professionals on an equal footing.

The alternative is that we continue with the situation whereby a candidate is rejected by a recruiter because he only has experience with Phillips cross-head screws and has never used Pozidriv.

Image: iStock/159286985

Comments (3)

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  • 1
    Roy Shepherd wrote on 18th Feb 2016

    Though there is significant uptake of SFIAplus summary and detailed skill descriptions within organisations, recruitment agents need to also embrace and identify and match people to employers by the more generic SFIAplus skill titles and descriptions.

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  • 2
    David Kay wrote on 19th Feb 2016

    Possibly the first step to take is for BCS members who are in the position of recruiting staff to get together to determine a common set of capabilities and requirements from a recruitment agency. This might include:
    - level of SFIA competency or ICT experience amongst their agents.
    - specified activities undertaken to confirm requirements.
    - vetting and forwarding protocols.
    Using these it might be possible to establish a BCS accreditation for ICT recruitment which agencies should obtain. Members could then use these agencies with a higher degree of confidence and most likely fee rates but the benefits should outweigh the costs.
    On the other side members seeking new employment can use these agencies with a higher anticipation that their skills and experience will be fully understood and appropriate opportunities will come their way.

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  • 3
    Steve Burrows wrote on 27th Apr 2016

    I like the idea of BCS certification for Recruitment Agencies - that's a great angle on the problem.

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