April 2, 2013
Faced with a problem familiar in the bush – the inability to find good permanent staff – software developer Practical Systems revised its thinking to make the problem fit the solution. Instead of trying – and failing – to recruit the ideal person to a permanent position, the Armidale-based business turned to a local resource, the University of New England (UNE), for excellent employees that come at a price: high turnover. Practical Systems’s help desk is now staffed by students studying agriculture-related disciplines. Each student only works 1.5 days a week and only stays a year. On the surface, that might seem an unacceptable level of staff ‘churn’. For Practical Systems chief executive, Mark Morton, it’s a two-way skills trade. The public face of Practical Systems has become smart young people – people with a proven ability to apply themselves. Mr Morton no longer has to dread the abrupt departure of a key employee, and the draining re-recruiting process: the students largely self-select their own replacements, and the workforce rolls over fluidly each year. Outgoing students get to sit in on the interviews for their replacements. “The best way to learn about how a job interview works is to sit on the other side of the interview table,” Mr Morton said. The students get work on terms that ensures minimal interference with their studies, has more relevance to their future careers and is better paid than standing behind a bar or waiting on tables. Along with relevant work experience, they get access to Practical Systems’s business network, an advantage they can leverage over their peers in the annual rush to find positions. Nearly all of the nine students who have been through Practical Systems to date have found work in large companies – the National Australia and Commonwealth banks, Landmark and CRT. “We want to build the capacity of rural and regional Australia,” Mr Morton said. “We’ve placed students with larger agribusinesses, but we’re also pleased to have helped a significant business in a small community.” Not everyone has UNE sitting up the hill, Mr Morton acknowledged, and not everyone has a situation that can accommodate such flexible working arrangements. But the experiences shows here are different approaches to employment in the skills-strapped bush – in this case, one that values the robustness of diversity over the hope of stability. “It’s really about changing paradigms,” Mr Morton said. “We had to realise that instead of needing one permanent person, we could work very effectively with three part-time people.” “It was a matter of working out what we need, and what the students need, and then putting the two together.” Practical Systems is now in its third year of working with the system, and has had 18 students on its books – nine this year alone. Rather than considering employee churn a problem, the company has set up systems to ensure that the phasing out of graduating students, and the phasing in of new talent, is as seamless as possible. On one hand, Mr Morton said, the company needs to be more disciplined about managing an annual staff changeover. On the other, it doesn’t have to deal with the crisis that follows the sudden departure of a long-term employee. “The price we pay to build greater flexibility into the company is that we get some strong talent, early. Where else, other than Bangalore, does anyone who runs a help desk have access to Honours undergraduates?” As a result of its student program, Practical Systems has been nominated for the 2013 NSW Training Awards.