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Overseas recruitment likely as NBN skills shortage looms

Fran Foo, Jennifer Foreshew

AS NBN Co begins to hire in earnest, it will shy away from poaching top telco talent and could face a shortage of skilled IT professionals this year.

The company charged with rolling out Kevin Rudd’s ambitious infrastructure project wants to triple its headcount from 100 to 300 by the middle of the year.

While recruitment experts warn of shortages, key technology suppliers disagree.

As the national broadband network project evolves, field construction staff will be in high demand. In the long run, the eight-year project is set to create about 25,000 jobs.

NBN Co human resources officer Kevin Brown said a five-year, $23 million deal with Accenture announced last week would allow the company to focus on hiring while Accenture took care of administrative tasks related to the workforce expansion process.

NBN Co is on the hunt for systems engineers, network planners, testers, systems architects, project managers and IT professionals.

Recruitment specialists within NBN Co are confident the massive project will be able to attract top local talent.

According to Trevor Hoggan, NBN Co workforce planning and sourcing general manager, the company will formalise a panel of recruitment firms starting from the second quarter of 2010.

In the past it has used up to 18 recruitment firms, including executive search firms Egon Zehnder and Korn Ferry International, on an ad-hoc basis.

As revealed in The Australian today, NBN Co’s anti-poaching policy discourages it from pinching staff from Telstra and other “potential customers”. Should a top-level executive at these companies
apply for a job at the broadband builder, NBN Co would inform their employer of the application. With numerous large-scale broadband network projects all over the world, the grab for talent could leave Australia in a bind.

Peoplebank chief executive officer Peter Acheson said detailed, strategic workforce requirements had to be established before the hiring spree began.

“Given the size and the scope of the NBN project and the speed they’ll need to implement, it’s prudent to be clear on all of these issues before they start hiring in volume,” Mr Acheson said.

He said the federal government’s $43 billion NBN project would be one of the reasons IT would return to a candidate-tight market this year.

“Place a project like that into an already improving IT market and demand will exceed supply by the second half of the year,” Mr Acheson said.

Robert Olivier, director of Advantage Professional, formerly known as Olivier Group, said NBN talent would have to come from countries that had already undertaken such a project.

“The thing is this has not been done before here so they are going to find it very difficult to find that know-how,” Mr Olivier said.

“The belief is they have got to re-skill people or be reasonably flexible in terms of what knowledge people are going to bring with them, or they are going to have to go overseas.”

Hudson ICT national practice leader Martin Retschko said NBN Co would have to use a combination of strategies of developing skills, looking for immediate skills and looking to the wider international candidate market at some point.

Mr Retschko said the services market generally was winning large contracts, which had resulted in more demand for skills and not enough supply of graduates or newly trained professionals.

“At the moment, what we are seeing is increased poaching activity and direct sourcing rather than investment in new channels of supply,” he said.

Telecommunications analyst Paul Budde said more emphasis should be given to training, especially the “upskilling” of copper network engineers to fibre.

“If you look at China and India they are pumping out engineers. We need a strategic hiring plan to make sure we get the best and the brightest for the NBN project and that may include retraining some workers and those that have even retired,” Mr Budde said.

Telecommunications equipment providers such as Huawei, Alcatel-Lucent and Ericsson disagree with the recruitment industry.

“Huawei has had no problem with expanding its local Australian team,” Huawei Australia spokesman Luke Coleman said.

“As our business grows in Australia, we will continue to expand and do not foresee any future problems with getting experienced staff with the required skills to deliver to our customers.”

Ericsson Australia broadband strategy manager Colin Goodwin said the largest number of people required for the project were field construction staff for the fibre cable deployment and not technology specialists. “In the area of skilled telecommunications and IP engineers the number is much less than the number of required field construction staff,” Mr Goodwin said.

“Ericsson continually invests in strategic competence development both locally and globally and has the requisite resources and skills to meet the challenging needs of such projects.”

Alcatel-Lucent Australia, which also sees physical construction and deployment forming the biggest demand, said the skills shortage debate lay outside the telecommunications realm.

“We actually think the largest skills challenge around the NBN is enabling people in industries outside of telecommunications to understand how broadband could be used to drive their own innovation and new business models,” an Alcatel-Lucent spokeswoman said.

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