Hired guns

Beating the IT staff shortage with contract workers
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In this article:
AT A GLANCE: Williams Controls, Inc.
Who are they?
Stemming the sprawl
Hire and hire
Lessons learned about using contract workers
The price of independence
When Dayna Aronson signed on as corporate director of information technology at Williams Controls Inc. last May, his mission was clear. The electronic throttle maker's ambitious growth plan required a complete technology overhaul--LANs, WANs, a state-of-the-art ERP system--the works. A rapidly narrowing window of opportunity meant it had to be done fast and it had to be done right. Strategic objectives called for the company to quickly become more competitive by lowering costs, decreasing time-to-market with new products, improving customer service, and responding more effectively to market demands and opportunities, according to Aronson.

Williams Controls Inc.'s Dayna Aronson

In a perfect world, Aronson would hire only the most skilled, most dedicated, full-time employees to staff up the IT department at the $55 million Portland, Ore.-based firm.

But this is the real world. With urgent projects on the table and an immediate need for qualified people, Aronson couldn't afford to spend months sifting through resumes, posting queries on the Internet, interviewing, testing, and conducting background checks on potential employees. Instead, he turned to local IT staffing agencies to find talent-for-hire on a temporary basis.

AT A GLANCE:

The company: Based in Portland, Ore., Williams Controls Inc. is a $55 million, publicly traded manufacturer of electronic throttles for the heavy truck industry.

The problem: An ambitious corporate growth plan called for a rapid, massive overhaul of the company's IT infrastructure and the implementation of an ERP system, without adding overhead with excessive full-time IT staff.

The solution: Williams Controls officials decided to hire short-term contract IT staffers from five local IT staffing agencies, including ATSI Group Inc., of Portland, Ore., to work on Y2K issues, routine corporate IT support, and ERP add-on projects. They were then free to re-deploy full-time workers on major, long-term projects.

"It can take three to five months to hire full-time staff. With contract agencies, it's generally two weeks or less," Aronson says. "That saves us the time and effort of conducting the search ourselves. And with so many of the best-qualified people becoming contractors, you have to go where the talent is."

To supplement his 10 full-time IT workers and his specialized, high-end ERP consultants, Aronson contacted five agencies. These firms--including Automated Technical Services Group Inc. (ATSI GROUP), of Portland, Ore., which furnished the majority of the contractors--provided him with two Y2K experts, a general IT staffer (to fill in for a full-timer re-deployed on another key project), and two programmers for add-on ERP projects.

These days, more than a third of his staff works on a contract basis. The results, so far, are promising: Aronson expects the WAN and ERP system--JBA System 21 from JBA International Inc., of Rolling Meadows, Ill.--to be in place by August, right on schedule.

Hire and hire

The much-vaunted nationwide IT personnel shortage has given an enormous boost to the contract IT staffing industry. According to the National Association of Computer Consultant Businesses (NACCB), a trade organization based in Greensboro, N.C., this $33 billion market is expected to continue its rapid expansion as IT managers struggle to meet time-to-market demands, shorter cycle times, high employee turnover, and rapidly changing IT skill sets. Computer Sciences Corp., a consulting firm in El Segundo, Calif., notes that finding and retaining IT staff is now one of the most pressing issues on the minds of CIOs, second only to the task of aligning IS and business goals.

Who are they?
A picture of the average independent IT consultant:
36 to 50 years old

17 years of IT training and education, on average

50% have advanced degrees

Average annual salary is $105,000

Source: Advanced Technology Staffing Inc. and GartnerGroup Inc.

The use and significance of contract workers will only rise in the foreseeable future, experts say. By 2003, 20% of IS positions will remain unfilled, says Diane Tunick-Morello, a research director at Gartner Group Inc., in Stamford, Conn. And in large enterprises (those with revenues over $1 billion), more than half of IT activities will be carried out by externally sourced workers.

"Ten years ago, using temporary consultants was considered a necessary evil," notes Peggy Smith, executive director of the NACCB. "Today it's a viable alternative for companies that need to maintain lean, permanent staffs and still undertake key projects."

Done right, buying tech talent through IT staffing agencies (also called brokers, suppliers, or vendors, depending on where you are in the country) can be the perfect middle way. Hiring short-term workers through a broker minimizes the legal and financial risks associated with self-employed independent contractors, on the one hand, and the expense of full-blown, Big-Five-style consultants, on the other.

Brokers provide companies with workers who have skill sets that are up to date and hard to find in full-time employees. These "just-in-time" workers can be used to address a short-term increase in workload or to fill a void while the search for a permanent employee is conducted. They can free up permanent employees to work on more strategic, critical, or desirable projects. Newer and smaller companies often use contract workers to quickly ramp up their capabilities during temporary demand surges. The flexibility of short-term hires is a boon to the bottom line, too; unlike full-timers, they aren't a drain on resources once a project is finished.

Best practices

"Over the last two or three years we've started seeing contract resources showing up as a big-ticket item on the IT budget," says Kari Krengel, president of TeCS Management Inc., an IT staffing consulting firm in St. Paul, Minn. "It's not unheard of for 50% of a company's IT resources to be spent on contractors."



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