Dell: the "skilled" myth dissipates - part 1

I was quite surprised whilst reading this article about the holdup regarding the grants to Dell workers for retraining, this very surprising and very contradictory statement:

Some of the workers were very low skilled and would need more basic retraining than others so it was essential to include crafts, he said.

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Whatever happened to the idea that huge multinationals were simply flocking to Ireland for our amazingly skilled, amazingly educated workers?

It seems that the figures don't add up. And I would suspect also, the parallel myth, that TNCs coming to Ireland pay spectacular wages and create an elite tier of workers with great pay, competitive conditions and of course, no need at all for union representation, because they are just SOOOO much better off than you poor Irish neanderthals working in Irish companies with unions and "traditional" work practices.

Actually there is, within the sector itself, a two tier sector - the first, a large and relatively open segment, made up largely of either manufacturing or call centre sectors, with lots and lots of entry level, unskilled posts, a small minority of higher skilled (and slightly higher paid) positions, and a smaller, very high skilled sector, with highly restricted entry due to high levels of specialisation and a strong expectation of preconditions including specific experience and qualifications. The rewards for the latter will be generous conditions and pay rates, the former modest pay but potentially good experience and a shot at training or promotions. However, the reality in the case of the latter is that many of the more senior positions will be restricted again to preskilled and experienced workers, so a large proportion of entry level workers will find themselves up against heavy competition for a small pool of better opportunities.

Its really difficult to pin down the reasons for the degeneration of the sector - was it always like this? Its necessary to go back 10, 15 years to answer this questions and perhaps explain why, if it wasn't always quite like this, the sector degenerated into a low skill, low pay and thus easily transferable sector. The problems are twofold - firstly changes that happened within the sectors themselves and secondly changes in Ireland that exacerbated changes within these sectors.

First of all, lets put to death the "high skilled" myth. By standards of even the UK and EU, Irish workers are questionably "high skilled." For a start, we have very low take up levels of maths at higher level, a language take up that overemphasizes French, and only happens in the last 5/6 years of the 2nd level cycle, and even at that, a large proportion of low to average achievers in comparison to our continental cousins. The math issue has two particularly serious issues - firstly, a very low level of high achievers insofar as very few students actually take higher level Maths and at the other end of the spectrum, worryingly high failure rates at the lower levels. To add to this, the levels of students taking physics and chemistry are not only low, but falling further. Much of this is due to a combination of low availability and perceptions that biology is "easier" and thus higher to gain valuable points for college places via.

A secondary issue is how industries have changed. 10 years ago, IT skills were often relatively low in administrative workers. Your average admin worker could use a pc for data input and search purposes, but probably little else. With a proliferation of PC use in the home and internet use in particular, skill levels hugely improved. I know of several secretaries with a level of IT skills commensurate to the skill level I'd expect from a data centre operator - they know a little about hardware, some basic OS stuff, can search for anything on the internet. A significant part of this is down to the fact that the technology itself has developed. In 1997-1999 I tried desperately to no avail to get an old version of Slackware Linux up and running on a home PC. It was simply quite "technical" and difficult even for a seasoned pc user. Even a simple operating system installation often included the need to setup boot disks, extract dos drivers, fiddle with bios settings, before you even stuck a disk in the pc. Make one mistake and you easily found a pc that wouldn't boot or wouldn't display correctly.

Nowadays, even the most advanced server offerings install quickly, with little need for intervention, or sometimes any interaction from the installer. Configuring mass deployments are a doddle compared to 9 years ago. The only thing that hasn't changed much is networking - this, interestingly, remains as pithy and complex as 10 years ago, partly due to a strangehold of Cisco over the sector and lack of development of simple-to-configure solutions. VPNs and firewalls indeed are a lot simpler to manage, but base networking knowledge is as valuable now as it was 10 years ago. Indeed, anybody who developed skills or certifications in server technologies without developing networking skills would now find themselves well behind the possé. Storage skills likewise, although iSCSI is increasingly popular as a cheap alternative, and as I discovered last week, not especially difficult to configure. For basic use anyway. When somebody comes up with a strong solution for masking LUNs in the same way a normal FC based SAN does it, iSCSI is likely to reign supreme. OK, that and when it passes the gigabit limitation. Again though, we are back to networking (and actually some networking configuration could probably provide an equivalent to LUN masking at vlan level).

Around 1997 to 2000, when IT skills shortages really hit the industry hard, the businesses responded in 2 ways. Firstly, they hiked wages a little. Not hugely so, but enough to make an entry level position a lot more attractive. Sure, it still fell short in many cases of then average salaries, but suddenly, companies with a requirement for IT workers found their pool of potential candidates widened. With Windows in particular both simplifying and wiping out other technologies, it seemed to make sense. The second response for many companies was to take unskilled and uncertified workers and train them up. This, I believe, did lasting damage to the industry.

On one hand, th intention was to find people with potential who could be trained up to a level that they were useful. But instead of initially picking off transferable skillsets and taking people with good skills in other business areas and essentially retraining them, they opened their doors to all CVs, trusting recruitment agencies, and took in a lot of dead wood. The 2nd problem was that while the basic training level was adequate for helpdesk and basic remote support, often the skill levels fell over massively in areas such as advanced networking, complex enterprise solutions, etc. For example some places willingly training up people to have really high level hardware skills, and placed them in 2nd/3rd level support positions on enterprise client bases, but with no networking skills. Or else they had netware or other dying technologies that would prove useless as tcp/ip based networking wiped the floor.

And these guys, now on paper, had experience under their belt. The illusion of high skills was then exacerbated by a carrot/stick approach to get employees to certify. When I worked in Dell around 2000/2001, most of those who got MCPs did so by memorizing "braindumps" - massive bodies of questions pulled in violation of exam policies and often sold outright on the internet. As a result, the REAL skill level of those in more senior roles often was far short of their paper skills, but since most of the skills at use day to day were based on hardware knowledge, this didn't matter. However it became a nightmare for anybody hiring from the poor of ex-employees of the big OEMs, when it became obvious, that many of their quite senior ex employees, who by then were turning around jobs at rapid rates, were far less skilled than they appeared to be on paper.

I noticed this in 2002, when an employer of mine mishired about a dozen "level 2" helpdesk staff. Probably about 75% of them had skill levels that really only matched basic entry level. They however, had the arrogance, ego and self-importance to bullshit their way into any post from desktop support to CIO. The disease started to spread across the industry, assisted by high levels of demand and poor skills assessments. Ironically, the OEMs must have been well aware of the shortcomings of many of their own staff - by 2001 the large ones were hiring even their assistant supervisors not from their own staff pools, but externally, from non technical positions. They must have been aware that their own internal demands were not meeting any but the most basic needs. To worsen this, employees were forced to follow knowledge management tools that switched off any sort of decision making. A small group of more experienced techs were enabled to sign off anything that would cost money (repairs, dispatch of parts or technicians). This led to a myopia about skilling employees at all.

Employees, however, were unhappy. Deluded into believing they were "highly skilled" and deserving of high wages, the turnover rates shot up to 80-90% in 12 months. They bullshitted their way across Ireland, often into relatively senior roles. With weak skill levels already, they were useless at peer training in smaller companies and many of those who entered IT in leaner times from 2003 onwards ended up leaving in frustration, shut out of senior positions due to a lack of training, lack of respect for high-level qualifications such as diplomas or degrees and a severe lack of ability of the industry to accurately reward good workers while eliminating poor ones.

Employers response to this was a knee jerk return to demanding high level skill certifications - diplomas and degrees regained currency. But students found themselves working for "lucky bastards" who'd left school with a pass leaving cert (and sometimes a lot less) and a lot of ego, who looked down on "academics" and often vindictively punished entry level employees with qualifications who they viewed as a long term threat. One by one, the IT companies stopped hiring in Ireland and started offshoring. Major employers, sometimes regarded as the best in the business, started closing, slowly.

When Gateway 2000 shut its doors in 2001, the government responded with a complacency that was breathtaking. Although the majority of employees found employment elsewhere, the key factors that led to the closure not only remained unsolved, the entire surrounding infrastucture was allowed to fracture. 8 years later, its main building, where once 3000 workers were employed, remains an empty shell, surrounded by dozens of empty offices. Once thriving, this area is now in almost total industrial collapse. Ireland's meltdown is as much to do with a lack of real, verifiable skills as it is to do with the global downturn.


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