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On the Hot Seat

Demand for tech talent outstrips supply

Dave MacKeen, chief executive, Eliassen Group

Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Dave MacKeen, chief executive, Eliassen Group

As chief executive officer of Wakefield’s Eliassen Group, one of the largest staffing agencies in the country, Dave MacKeen has a bead on employment trends. Eliassen now operates in 36 states and works with many Fortune 100 clients. It recorded revenues of $171 million in 2012. He spoke with the Globe’s Michael B. Farrell about the hottest job markets, how candidates can avoid blowing interviews, and the recent controversy over a tax on software services.

Tech companies are always talking about how tough it is to recruit top talent. On the staffing front, are you facing similar challenges?

We absolutely do. Part of the problem is the drop in the number of computer science graduates. Financial and software development firms are looking for this technical talent, and there’s just not enough supply out there for the demand. So, for us, the challenge is to find that talent. So you need really good recruiters.

How do we increase the supply?

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It really goes back to grade school and middle school to prepare students for some of these difficult engineering and computer science programs in college. Also, we have to create awareness that these jobs are out there.

Should we ease immigration laws to let companies hire more skilled foreign workers?

First, we should look to local employment to fill opportunities. But if you look at some of the programming skills that companies need, we don’t have some of these skills. There is a role for a lot of [foreign workers] who are talented, extremely bright, and have advanced degrees.

Since there aren’t enough people to fill the jobs, are you having to offer crazy perks to fill positions?

Salaries and pay rates have gone up significantly over the past few years. They’re at the highest level since I’ve been in this space, and I’ve been in it since the 1990s.

How does Obamacare impact the short-term staffing business?

In Massachusetts, it’s already a requirement to provide health insurance to our employees. So we have a leg up over competitors who aren’t from Massachusetts and have to implement this. There’s still a lot of uncertainty out there about Obamacare.

Does it hurt your business when the economy improves and businesses are hiring more full-time employees?

Not necessarily. It improves our business of recruiting permanent employees. But that’s a small percentage of our overall business. When the market is strong, it means that firms are working on more projects and they are willing to spend. In the downturn, our business doesn’t go completely away. They might not be hiring full-time employees, but still need temporary consultants for projects.

It seems all but certain that Massachusetts lawmakers will repeal a recently adopted software services tax. Did legislators not understand what they were passing, or not anticipate the backlash?

I think a bit of both. Some of this is very complex. We’re in the space, and we didn’t even completely understand the tax. Because of the way it was rolled out, people just didn’t know enough about it. But when they did, people pushed back. Technology has been a growth driver in Massachusetts, so why would we target the sector?

Eliassen Group spends a lot of time coaching people on how to find jobs. What are some of the biggest mistakes people make when on the job hunt?

I’ve seen resumes that are five or six pages. And when you get a lot of paper in front of you . . . you can’t find what’s doing to differentiate a candidate.

Candidates need to ask good questions during the interview. Where’s the organization going? What’s important to them? What keeps the manager up at night? Interactive communication is extremely important. Everyone is also doing background and drug checks these days. That’s something people need to be aware of, and upfront about.

What’s the fastest growing job market in Massachusetts?

Health care technology is growing fast with Obamacare. A lot of hospitals are implementing new software. That’s a real hot market. Information technology continues to be hot. Some of the financial firms have slowed down a bit. Many over-hired in 2012.

Michael B. Farrell can be reached at michael.farrell@globe.com.
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