Nailing down IT career descriptions

Listing specific skills when advertising an IT-related job doesn’t exactly guarantee that all incoming resumes are from qualified people.

Jason Atkins, IT manager at Brantford, Ont.-based document management outsourcing firm Distributech Inc., recently concluded the exhausting process of filtering through resumes, interviewing candidates and selecting one of them as the firm’s new Web developer.

A year-and-a-half ago when Distributech initially tried to hire a Web developer, it posted the job ad on a major online employment site. But rather than receiving resumes from developers, it got flooded with responses from Web design professionals — people “who can only manipulate or create graphics and post things on the Web,” Atkins said.

This happened despite the fact that Distributech specified in its job ad exactly what kinds of skills it needed.

“I think one of the things we had an issue with when trying to hire is the definition of what (type of candidate) we were really trying to hire,” he said.

The firm ended up having to change the job title on the posting to “application developer,” which fixed the problem. “Then we started to see resumes from people who could actually program in Microsoft code and who knew back-end database technology,” he said.

Sometimes getting resumes from the wrong kinds of candidates is a result of applicant confusion and overconfidence, Atkins explained. “People a few years ago used to figure that if they were really good with the Web, if a position required a candidate to understand ASP and Microsoft SQL or Access database, they could learn it quickly. They didn’t understand what it was,” Atkins said.

But applicants can’t take all the blame for the mix-up. The Web developer position has “definitely changed” over the last few years, he noted.

“If a company wanted a Web developer five years ago, they would immediately go to a graphic artist person who could design Web sites.” Since then, the position has evolved, breaking into two streams: the Web designer, “a graphic artist person familiar with HTML and layout of pages for the Web;” and the Web developer, “someone experienced in developing Web applications that are powered by databases,” he said.

This kind of evolution is something the Ottawa-based Software Human Resource Council (SHRC) is trying to keep up with through its Occupational Skills Profile Model (OSPM). The goal is to encourage enterprises to adopt the model as a standard for defining IT employment in Canada.

“[Our role is] to set national definitions so we can get an employer, educator or individual in Charlottetown talking the same language as someone in Prince Rupert,” said Paul Swinwood, SHRC’s president.

Developing that common language in Canada is a challenge, Swinwood said. “Individual provinces are responsible for training and the funding of training. As a result, we have a hodge-podge of (educational) programs that are funded depending on local conditions.”

That means the definition of a particular IT position is often skewed toward the needs of the employer or industry dominating a certain region. For example, “in the telecom sector, the needs for a Web developer may be different than if you’re in the manufacturing or tourism sector,” he explained.

The OSPM, however, focuses on defining general skills rather than on specific tools, which should be left to the discretion of the employer, Swinwood said.

“If you look at ads in the paper, you see companies asking for expertise [with a specific version of a certain tool] and then they wonder why they can’t find anybody. But if they ask for someone who knows a high level of [that type of tool], they would get a much broader range of people to interview….The main thing is to create a broader pool from which companies can choose (candidates), and to give the individual an opportunity to explain their competencies and skills in way that companies might be interested in interviewing them.”

Having a “common dictionary” of IT occupations is also useful for human resources professionals who “might not be very information technology literate,” he added.

But as with the dictionary on your bookshelf, definitions in the OSPM have to be updated, and as time goes on, new job categories must be added.

The Web developer definition is the latest addition. Swinwood said the position “has been around for long time, but it really hasn’t stabilized. It is just in last year that we felt we would be able to define [it].”

Focus testing is part of the definition process. In September the SHRC already held a focus group in Vancouver, and will bring one to Toronto on Nov. 25.

The SHRC also picks four or five of its 25 job streams each year to update, and rotates through the list, revisiting each definition every six or seven years. This year, project management and database administration will undergo revision. The project management focus group met earlier this month in Montreal, while the database administration group meeting is set for Nov. 4 in Halifax.

“Sometimes we look and find that (the definition) is still perfect, but we want to make sure that the industry is signed on and agrees that the definitions are correct,” Swinwood said.

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