Paper or practice, what do employers want?

The plaintive wail is well known to recruiters up and down the land: "but I've used it before, so I can do this job too." It comes from disgruntled contractors, trying to convince the middleman on the other end of the line of their technical nous and suitability for an assignment.

But recruiters are not easily convinced, and very often need to see the technologies that they are searching for across a CV in commercial experience and official certification.

But, the suspicion can remain among contractors that official training is a fall back of idle recruitment consultants who do not have the technical understanding necessary to quiz potential candidates. If you 'know' C++, and have commercial experience, why waste time and money on a sheet of paper that confirms this?

Caroline Edwards is a Director with IT recruitment firm Harvey Nash. She is unequivocal about the value of the right qualifications. "It's a catch 22 because you need both," she says, "regardless of experience, I'm not sure that a contractor would get that far without qualifications, and on this point it doesn't differ much between contractors and permanent staff."

In her experience, this requirement for certification is client driven. "Typically, they don't like to buy a contractor with qualifications only," she says. "So, someone who hasn't actually gone on to deliver that skill commercially is less appealing. You've got to have both and it's difficult for contractors to get that mix right."

The problems faced by contractors in developing new on-the-job skills are compounded by employer's tightening their recruitment practices. "Years ago," explains Edwards, "a contractor could put a skill down on their CV and it wouldn't be until they started the job that their lack of experience became clear."

Such has been the route to new skills for many in the trade, and most contractors will recall at least one experience where a colleague did not have the detailed knowledge expected of them, relying instead on rapid on-the-job learning – often to the huge irritation of those that they are working with.

But employers have been stung too many times and have largely realised the expense involved with recruiting the wrong person. As a result, interviews have become more thorough, often incorporating formal technical testing or at the very least a verbal line of technical questioning.

Such profiling is becoming more prevalent among recruiters also, as a valuable add-on for their clients. "As recruiters we need to help here," says Edwards, "because it can be very difficult for clients to keep up with technical developments and testing advances, so we need to help sort the wheat from the chaff. This is increasingly done through online technical testing as part of the sifting process. For example, in a programming language there may be one particular part that is particularly of interest and these tests can be used to show knowledge levels and decide whether or not to interview."

In spite of this, the market can tend to send mixed messages. Our figures show that technical qualifications are very rarely mentioned in roles advertised for contractors. In most fields, there are around twice as many permanent roles advertised as there are contract vacancies. For example, itjobswatch shows that there are 13,700 roles for contract developers currently available, compared to almost 30,000 vacancies for permanent staff to do the same job. However, mentions of specific qualifications are roughly three to five times more common (and occasionally even more prevalent) in permanent roles than contractor advertisements, right across the board.

The expectation that contractors will have formal qualification is implicit, even if it is not explicitly mentioned by advertisers. And so, for contractors this can often mean taking the uncomfortable decision to drop rates. "Good contractors are very canny in the way they handle their careers," says Edwards, "in that they will very often do training in their own time and then in their next role, drop their charge slightly in order to get commercial experience over the next six months."

It would seem then, that employers want the best of both worlds, and to get ahead, wise contractors need to get themselves trained.

Matt Farquharson

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