E-com skills are becoming e-lusive

Just how desperate are IT managers to get good e-commerce professionals on board? Just ask Eric Kidd. The CTO and vice-president of engineering at start-up Petsmart.com in Pasadena, Calif., is spending 40 hours per week – nearly two-thirds of his typical 70-hour week – on recruiting efforts alone.

Petsmart.com, a subsidiary of retailer Petsmart Inc., was launched in July and quickly jumped to the front of a crowded e-commerce category, the on-line pet store. But Kidd said he fears that his company’s early market lead is at risk if he doesn’t get ample e-commerce database, application development and quality assurance skills on board ASAP. At the same time, he’s also staffing for his fledgling company’s internal information technology infrastructure. In all, he plans to add 50 people this year to his 24-person staff.

“The shortage of people resources constantly prevents new projects from getting work,” Kidd said.

Kidd’s dilemma isn’t unique to dot-com start-ups. E-commerce and other Web-based initiatives are driving a good portion of the new IT hiring (as opposed to replacement hiring) this year. In all industry segments, IT managers are clamouring for Internet expertise to address their needs for on-line shopping sites, business-to-business e-commerce, extranet and intranet application development and – the mother lode – database support that ties it all together with back-end systems.

While overall IT staff size won’t be increasing dramatically for many companies, IT hiring will remain brisk, as managers cope with continuing IT attrition. For example, at financial services firm PaineWebber Inc. in New York, Natalie Leone, vice-president of corporate staffing, said she expects to hire approximately 550 IT professionals this year. Of those, between 15 per cent and 20 per cent will fill brand-new positions; the rest will be replacements for lost staffers. Of the 400 people CIO Paul LeFort said he expects to hire this year at health care provider UnitedHealth Group Corp. in Minneapolis, most will be replacements as well.

Hiring continues to be a challenge, given low unemployment in general and IT skills shortages in particular. “Part of the problem is that a lot of Internet technology is piggybacked on Oracle, and so everyone is screaming for the same people,” said Charles Buscemi, an IT recruiter at 1-800-Flowers.com in Westbury, N.Y. “Everyone is competition,” not just other dot-coms, he noted.

Beyond the database realm, competition is just as stiff for other Internet-related skills, especially Java, Microsoft Corp.’s Active Server Pages, Visual Basic and C++ application development, network architects and administrators, and Unix systems administrators. Partly because of the competition, and partly because IT shops want people who can hit the ground running, IT positions often linger unfilled as long as six to nine months, managers say – a lifetime when business is moving at Internet speed.

But because many of the technologies driving staffing needs are not much older than that three to five years companies are looking for – if that old – solid experience is hard to come by.

The demand is forcing companies to make job offers so competitive that new recruits can’t refuse and/or come up with innovative ways to quickly create their own expertise internally.

In the current environment, just about the only group of IT professionals possibly facing hard times this year are independent consultants.

UnitedHealth Group, which has IT operations in Minneapolis; Hartford, Conn., Greenville, S.C., and Somerset, N.J., will cut its use of contractors by half this year, LeFort said, partly because it has wrapped up its Y2K projects.

“We used to run about 10 per cent contractors, and we are turning 5 per cent of those into full-time positions,” LeFort said. “It’s less expensive, and we’re finishing up the projects that we had been using contractors for.”