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Aging iSeries workforce reopens to newbies

According to Nate Viall, iSeries recruiter and analyst, the job market looks good for 2006, and the conditions are right for iSeries shops to start hiring entry-level workers again. But after years of stagnancy, where will they come from?

Where does the iSeries fit in the job market recovery?
The iSeries had the big crash in 2002. It started in 2001 -- Y2K was over and we started seeing layoffs. [The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks] 9/11 and the extension of the unemployment benefits contributed to the delay in the recovery. A lot of people didn't take the initiative until their unemployment ran out. But many of those people at that stage did not come back into the iSeries world.

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What does that mean for the iSeries' demographics?
We're seeing an increasing graying of our workforce in the iSeries world. We've more than doubled the percentage of players with 25 years experience or more -- operators, programmers and managers -- since 1999. The reason this age shift is occurring is because we're not hiring entry-level people. Is there a market for entry-level iSeries workers now?
I'd give a qualified, but enthusiastic yes. As you come into a recovery phase, like we are now starting, companies go to the campuses to add staff to their companies. The second thing is they go after the people with five-to-10 years experience, backfilling where they've been incredibly lean.

In the iSeries world, people with two-to-four years experience are now being clamored for at the low end. But guess what -- nobody hired entry-level people after 1998, so they are not there. If the recovery continues -- and you have to put that qualifier in there -- that bodes well for entry-level hires. Are there any other factors that make it a good job market for entry-level workers?
The 65,000 cap on H-1B visas has already been reached for 2006, so there will be no more H-1B visas issued for the year. Any companies that were late in the planning process have no choice. If they want cheap labor they're going to have to go to the campus. Where would college students get an iSeries education?
You have to do some sleuthing. There has been a huge drop in the number of schools offering the iSeries education. And that's because the employers stopped hiring at the end of the 1990s. The schools aren't dumb. If you're paying instructors and you have two people in class, the class gets dropped.

There are connections through Rochester, [Minn.], at IBM to find out where classes are still being offered. It's scattered. Could a college student get by with a general computer science background and learn the iSeries through coursework or other means?
There are all kinds of resources out there from California Software [Corp.] and their counterparts. So with a little bit of work you can get the resources.

In the early System/38 days of the platform, they had very general IT educational backgrounds and they learned it on the job. They learned it in the user groups. You got a manual and started playing. Do you think the System i5 revamp will help the job market?
If IBM and the business partners start putting new iSeries boxes in new accounts, then [yes]. [System i5] will very likely help IBM's earnings -- that's a no-brainer. The encouraging news is a much improved, lower price point [on System i5] for the small business. Is there anything else happening in the market that might affect iSeries pros?
An encouraging thing from a hiring standpoint is watching the pendulum swing between packaged solutions versus in-house solutions. We've got some interesting evidence to suggest that we're starting to swing back toward in-house solutions again. Really?
Think about it. If everybody has the same software package, how can IT be a competitive advantage? Companies are figuring that out.

Think about how much work is involved every time a vendor does a software upgrade. IT shops spend hundreds of thousands of hours making sure they can plug in the existing modules as they evolve over time. I'm seeing a lot of clients now where the vendor software is almost shelf-ware because they can't upgrade any longer because it's too heavily customized. Are there certain skills beyond iSeries basics that companies value right now, like service-oriented architecture experience?
Things like that show up on the wish list, but they are not typically make or break items. It's not as if a person wouldn't get to the final interview without having SOA [service-oriented architecture] or SQL skills. The thing I'm hearing more from end users is more about the person's ability to understand the business of the business.

I have a client that I'm working with right now, that when we get the job filled they're going to have that person out on the production floor for 10 days learning the business before they ever come into the IT department. The CIO [chief information officer] needs that person to understand all of the interesting, unique things the company is doing and to understand how they add value. You're not going to write good code -- you're not going to design a good system -- if you don't understand that.

The other thing is individuals with multiple skills, bilingual if you will. Anything that would be Web or front-end related is going to be a plus on most job opportunities. Are some geographic markets hotter than others?
If you're locked in and only want to work in Grand Rapids, [Mich.], or Detroit, you've got a problem because they've been hard hit with the auto sector downturn. On the other hand, if you're going to Phoenix, you've got opportunity because of the sheer mass of people moving into six or seven key southern states. The other growth area would be New York and New Jersey. You could even broaden that to include the Washington, D.C., to Boston corridor.

Let us know what you think about the story; e-mail: Matt Stansberry, News Editor

Nate Viall is president of Nate Viall and Associates, a Midwest iSeries recruiting and national industry research firm located in Des Moines, Iowa.

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