Many experiences can help you break into ERP

Tales of high salaries and big opportunities have encouraged thousands of IT people to seek careers in enterprise resource planning.

“If you go into ERP, you will be at the forefront of the industry, because ERP will be in demand for years to come,” predicts George Zatulovsky, president of 5th Street Solutions, an SAP implementation contracting company in Pleasanton, Calif.

Breaking into an area of IT such as ERP can be difficult because companies tend to want experienced workers. And it may be more difficult right now because year 2000 efforts are delaying implementations at many corporations. But observers expect opportunities to increase in 2000 – and there are ways to get the initial experience needed.

One way to build the skills necessary is through classes, and these can be helpful. But Jeanne Pace, an ERP recruiter at Pace Search Services in Dallas, warns job seekers not to fall into the trap of believing that education will overcome a lack of ERP experience when it comes to getting a job.

“I get a lot of calls from people who paid a couple of thousand dollars to take classes on SAP and now they can’t find a job,” said. “The reason they can’t is that knowing the language is only a small piece of the requirement. The main part is living through an SAP implementation and understanding the phases of it.”

One way to gain experience with SAP projects is to join one of the smaller consulting firms serving mid-size companies, many of which are just beginning ERP installations, Zatulovsky said.

Jon Reed, director of the ERP division at recruiting company Allen Davis & Associates in Amherst, Mass., also advocates the consulting route.

“You see more projects and get more training” as a consultant than you do as an employee, Reed said. “Large consulting firms often will take new MBAs, people who are one or two years out of college, or those who are just graduating. I know people who have got into ERP at a pretty young age that way.”

Rewards are hefty for SAP consultants in large companies, who can earn US$100,000 annually for being a team member and US$135,000 for managing a project, plus annual bonuses of 20 per cent or more, according to Steven Hildebrand, a senior recruiter at SAPient Executive Search in Doylestown, Pa.

The downside of becoming an ERP consultant is the heavy travel.

“You have to travel 100 per cent of the time, Monday through Friday,” Hildebrand said.

Savvy IT professionals can work their way into ERP projects within their companies instead of becoming consultants, according to Robert Rubin, senior vice-president and CIO of Elf Atochem North America, a Philadelphia chemical manufacturer that is just completing a large SAP project.

One way is to volunteer to handle the physical configuration of the system — setting up the Oracle database tables that determine the workflow.

Another way is to be a PC technician who handles the desktop GUI for SAP. “By being involved on the edges of SAP people can become more knowledgeable, then apply for higher-technology jobs, such as desktop support,” Rubin said. “I’ve had people come in that way who then were given the opportunity to move into far more technical areas of network support or SAP programming.”

Like consultants, full-time employees working on ERP systems can benefit financially.

K.S. Kuo, an ERP consultant at Coastside Data Systems in Moss Beach, Calif., said staff-level IT workers making US$50,000 to US$60,000 per year can earn 40 per cent to 90 per cent higher pay after working on an SAP project. Managers probably would get smaller percentage increases, he said.

But full-time employees also will find a downside to ERP, including long hours and frustration. “[Projects] can run over budget and over schedule, which can affect you psychologically,” Kuo said.

ERP specialists with hands-on experience may want to consider ERP management. Kuo said candidates need at least five years of management experience, the proven ability to manage a department of 20 or more people, and a track record that includes at least two implementation cycles on that ERP product or something comparable.

“Companies will want two implementation cycles of experience, because the first time someone implements SAP or Oracle it is usually very painful and very expensive,” Kuo said.

Getting ERP experience is sometimes a matter of luck, according to Reed. “Half of it is being in the right place at the right time,” Reed said. “There are a lot of self-described experts who happened to be sitting around one day and got drafted into an ERP project.”

Alexander is a freelance writer in Edina, Minn.