Small Business

The No-Talent Show


Good high-tech help is hard to find. Just ask the Better Business Bureau's Mississippi chapter. Last fall, the chapter hired a full-time Web designer to build its new Internet site. Guess what? The guy quit abruptly after five weeks without completing the project--hampering the Better Business Bureau's ability to warn businesses about the problems of hiring reliable high-tech help.

The BBB chapter has since recovered, but your business could be next. "There's definitely been an increase" in IT-related complaints," confirms Doug Broten, president of the Fresno (Calif.) Better Business Bureau. "And you have to realize we're in Fresno. This isn't Silicon Valley," Broten says of the blue-collar, low-tech city. Why the upturn in complaints? Underqualified and wholly unqualified workers are pouring into a widening supply gap in the labor market. This year, U.S. employers will need 1.6 million tech workers, yet only half of the positions--an estimated 843,328--are expected to be filled, according to the Information Technology Assn. in Arlington, Va. The shortfall is producing a bumper crop of less-than-professional computer professionals.

For large companies, separating the labor wheat from the chaff is easy enough. Managers know what skills to look for, and intense work environments soon thrash out incompetence. That task isn't as easy for your small company, however. You may not know what questions to ask. Or you may not have the money to hire the cream of the crop. Most small businesses don't. "We're a small business ourselves," says Broten. "I can't compete with Intel. I can't afford to pay a guy out of college $75,000." Instead, Broten uses Internet service provider ProtoSource of Santa Monica, Calif., "and some kid named David."

What do you do if you're not Intel and you don't know David? Consider outsourcing--but only to computer specialists who have been around longer than your business. That's what startups SportsHabitat.com in Lake Forest, Calif., and xmlexpress in Arlington, Mass., do. SportsHabitat.com uses programmers and data-entry workers from AppleOne, a 36-year-old employment agency based in Glendale, Calif., to supplement its staff of 24. And xmlexpress has on retainer three local programmers whom founder Rachael Sokolowski has known for several years.

Such a business arrangement isn't right for everyone, though. AppleOne charges up to $75 an hour for programmers--a price SportsHabitat.com investors Reggie Jackson and Joe Montana seem comfortable with, but one that may be beyond your reach. And xmlexpress' Sokolowski knows better than a lot of entrepreneurs how to screen high-tech applicants; she holds two patents in her field.

So you're not Intel, you don't know David, you hold no patents, and you have no celebrities footing your outsourcing bill. Now what do you do? "That's a good question," shrugs John Miller, who specializes in large-scale corporate IT recruitment for Electronic Search Inc. in Rolling Meadows, Ill. "You just have to be a good judge of character." True. Especially if you use any of the new Web-based job auctions. The sites, such as those found on national online job boards like Monster.com or HotJobs.com, allow freelance techies to solicit bids from prospective employers. One ad on Monster.com, for example, trumpets, "College Student With Tons of Web Experience!" The fee: $50 to $75 per hour.

The problem is, most small businesses are in no position to assess technical workers' skills. "Small businesses are still trying to feel their way through technology," says Broten. "In Fresno, you might have a trade association meeting where you may only be the first or second person there who even has a Web site."

Assessing technical skills is not always easy, concedes Allan Hoffman, who holds the title of "tech jobs expert" at Monster.com. But there are ways. One dot-com CEO, who knew nothing about tech but needed to hire a CTO, took the unusual step of bringing job candidates to meet the startup's Web developer. "From his perspective, it was a good way to assess their skills and get free advice," recalls Hoffman.

David Tabor, owner of Denver-based software developer Tabor Interactive, says he was able to increase his workforce to 25, from seven last year, by aiming low. While potentially a gamble, Tabor believes his strategy of offering training, then rewards, will foster loyalty. "The people we bring in are typically at a junior level. And while a lot of companies hire people right out of school and give them midlevel positions, we make people pay their dues," says Tabor bluntly. "We don't pay as much, so we don't attract the people who think they know all the answers." Whether you're looking for a part-time or full-time worker, it helps to know what industry certifications the job applicant holds. If you're not sure how to value the certifications, find a peer who has hired similarly accredited workers.

Still not sure? Check with local computer-user groups (you can find them on the Web) and with vendors. For example, Cisco Systems Inc. in San Jose, Calif., offers five levels of networking certifications. They include Cisco Certified Network Associate, or CCNA; and Cisco Certified Design Professional, or CCDP. All degrees require a written exam administered by an independent testing firm. The certifications matter. CCNAs have a solid understanding of how networks work and can set up a local-area network just about in their sleep. However, you typically don't want them designing a costly wide-area network. Leave that to the CCDP.

If you do find the right high-tech workers, Harold Palmer, chief executive of the Jackson (Miss.) BBB, would love to hear from you. "Please tell them to get back to me," he says, half-joking. The second designer he hired was lured away by a higher salary and, for now, he's outsourcing work to an acquaintance--an old strategy for desperate times.

Help! I Need Somebody

With tech talent scarce, it pays to be careful. Consider these steps before hiring any consultant:

CHECK REFERENCES

Look at the work they've done before and be sure it's a similar-size project. Ask to see the certifications they've achieved.

INVESTIGATE BACKUP HELP

Verify how well you'll be covered by backup procedures. In a two-person shop, make sure the second technician will be available--and able--to work on your system.

GO ON-SITE

If a consultant is local, go to their shop. If it's a small office and can't hold even five workers, you want to know that.

COUNT CLIENTS

Find out how many clients a consultant or temp agency has. A long client list may be impressive, but make sure the firm's growth has kept pace with the roster.

WATCH FOR SPECIALTIES

Most techies don't know it all. A great Web designer may not know the first thing about e-commerce or databases.

OWN THE CODE

Make certain you retain the rights to--and have copies of--all programming work temps or other part-timers do. By Kevin Ferguson


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