Non-techies may have a lot to offer IT shops

With employers still clamouring to find enough workers, smart companies have made great leaps in recruiting information technology staff from non-traditional areas. This can mean bringing a recently graduated music major on board or finding a customer service person in-house who demonstrates IT aptitude.

Some employers have found ways to ferret out potential IT professionals. We asked several IT managers how they find and train the right people and what are the benefits of having non-techies in the mix.

At UnitedHealth Technologies in Minn., there are several paths in technology that non-IT employees can choose. UnitedHealth offers tuition reimbursement for college classes and degrees, so if someone wants to become a programmer, they can educate themselves to fill that roll. The company also has an in-house “Learning Institute.”

“We need people who can do the business-analysis testing and implementing for rapid deployment of IT solutions,” said Darcie Corbin, vice president of business systems planning. “For half their day, they take courses in business analysis and testing and project management.”

Many companies do this sort of career transitioning on an informal basis. Greensboro, N.C.-based Guilford Mills Inc., a fabrics manufacturer, had difficulty recruiting employees in rural Cobleskill, N.Y. “We were unable to find qualified IT people,” said Bryan Puffer, an information systems technician, “so we looked elsewhere” – within the company.

“Somebody here who enjoyed playing around with his home computer expressed an interest” in technology, Puffer said. Puffer and his boss provided much of the basic training and mentoring the employee needed. When more advanced skills were required, his boss provided formal Novell training.

In a tight job market, Rob Figliulo, chairman and CEO of SPR Inc., an IT services company in Oak Brook, Ill., looks among non-computer-science college graduates.

“Give me the right person, and I’ll give them skills. We’re looking at whether you have the right attitude and disposition for the job rather than what skill set do you have,” Figliulo said.

Training Fills Gaps

SPR employs graduates with majors ranging from math to music. Non-IT hires are trained on BroadVision, Java and HTML. “We give them formal training, then we assign them a mentor, put them on project teams with people skilled on those tool sets and they do very well,” he said.

Of course, hiring non-technologists for IT roles requires some give-and-take. “Managers are more flexible with hiring requirements, with the idea of supplementing training,” said Linda Fagare, a technical recruiter at The Boeing Co. in the Seattle area.

Boeing has a variety of training options. “We have a very extensive program of off-hours classes in C++, software and programming. We also have the ‘Learning Together’ program, where Boeing will pay you to take accredited college or university classes or get another degree,” Fagare said.

Specialized skills are particularly important. “We need people with domain knowledge in command/control, intelligence, surveillance, guidance and navigation. We’ll get people who don’t have IT experience but do (have experience) in these areas, and we will train them on IT,” said Fagare. “It’s usually much easier to teach the people the technology rather than the domain area of our business.”

Managers need to look beyond traditional IT talent.

“You need someone who has an innate curiosity and flexibility – someone who can handle multiple tasks and look at the bigger picture,” said Judith Volente, a consultant to the IT division of CGU Corp., an insurance company in Foxboro, Mass. “Project management is the most important; conflict management is next.”

Non-IT employees with these special qualities can opt for the “Choose IT” training program at Sprint PCS Group in Kansas City, Mo. “You have to go through an application process,” said Cleone Davis, vice-president of application development and information resource management.

“We determine which specific skill sets we’re short on, such as Web development. Then people are interviewed, and we do aptitude testing for that kind of work,” Davis said.

Candidates who are selected go through formal training as well as a mentored internship with on-the-job training for six months to a year. “If you give these people the chance to significantly change their career and earnings potential, that will make them feel good about Sprint and want to stay with Sprint,” Davis said.