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Grow your own

by Douglas E. Welch

October 29, 1999

© 1999, Douglas E. Welch

Many companies today are bemoaning the fact that they can't find an experienced Flash programmer, an ASP (active server page) expert or a graphic designer who knows how to work with PHP to create personalized web graphics on the fly. While in some ways I debate the current hysteria around the lack of technical workers I can also understand the problems that some companies face. How do you find someone with years of experience when the development tool has only been available for a few weeks? The fact is, these companies need to look to organizations that are much older to find a solution.

In the Army now

It might seem like a large stretch, but the military, (meaning Army, Navy, Marines, and Air Force) have had to deal with the same dearth of qualified personnel since the first army was created in ancient times. Imagine the problems of finding an experienced archer when the longbow had only just been invented. Sure you might find a few huntsmen who were good with the bow, but where do you find 40-50 of them to go to war with your next door neighbor or to train the 500 others you'll need to win that war? In today's world, the same problem occurs when you go looking for a fighter pilot or a nuclear reactor technician for an aircraft carrier. There are not a lot of people with these skills just walking around your town. You can post all the ads you want, but the fact is you are not going to find someone to fill those positions any time soon. Military organizations have known about this problem for centuries and developed a method of dealing with it. If they can't find experienced personnel, they grow their own.

Hail, hail, Corporate U.

The most recent effort to fill empty technical positions involves companies calling for an increase in the number of H1-B visas to bring foreign workers into the US workforce. What these companies fail to realize is that importing workers will still not provide enough knowledgeable bodies to fill the current job openings, let alone the ever-increasing demands of the future. Specialized knowledge is a finite quantity and if companies want knowledgeable people they are going to have to develop these people themselves.

High-tech companies need to develop programs that allow them to develop their next generation of employees. Building on the military example, they should create programs that offer new workers a defined list of training and experience in return for a time commitment. For example, a company can agree to train someone to be a web developer for their company with a written understanding that the person will stay with the company for a certain number of years after they receive the training. Companies would be developing their own post-graduate programs that involve both training and hands-on experience. Granted, the details of early exits and evaluation milestones would have to be developed, but I don't think this is an insurmountable obstacle.

Not for everyone

Just as some people do not continue with the military after their commitment is completed, some of these workers would move on to other jobs and other companies. Even so, the training company has had the use of their hands and their minds for the time of the original commitment. It is not like the company trained the person without receiving any work in return. More importantly, those workers that do stay have a deeper understanding of how the company works and can apply their new talents in any particular area of the company.

Of course, beyond the initial training programs, companies have to build enlightened business practices. The same forward thinking that developed the training programs must stretch throughout the company as a whole. Otherwise, after their commitment is fulfilled, most people will go to a company that offers them more opportunities or a better work environment. Too often I see companies that are very progressive in some areas while being totally backward in others. Even though you have trained these people you still need to work at retaining them.


If companies want to succeed in the coming years, they need to develop the next generation of "Top Gun" programmers just as the Navy develops its fighter pilots. For too long, companies have depended on the existing academic systems to provide them with new recruits. The fact is, technology jobs today are so wide and varied that it is impossible for academia to develop anything but an overview of the current job market. Colleges can give students a good overview of current knowledge and the techniques of learning, but it is up to companies, to turn this raw talent into productivity. Any company that ignores this fact is likely to find themselves out of business before they ever find the personnel they need.

Douglas E. Welch is a freelance writer and computer consultant in Van Nuys, California. Readers can discuss career issues with other readers by joining the Career Opportunities Discussion on Douglas' web page at:

He can reached via email at

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