So how exactly do system integration companies retain the necessary skills within their organisation? Why would anyone invest in training employees if they know that another company will likely poach them? Hi-Tech Security Solutions spoke to the industry about these thorny issues.
Kevin Monk, technical director for Bidvest Magnum Technology said that skills for systems integration are readily available, but you need to follow a systematic process to put them to work. “Some of the skills available are not registered with PSIRA and this can be problematic. In particular, IT-skilled people are not necessarily registered with PSIRA. The registration process is unfortunately taking a while, so this adds an extra obstacle to ensuring that the people who claim to be qualified, can start with our company timeously.”
“Most suppliers and distributors offer good quality training courses on their products and systems. So acquiring the basic skills on products is readily achieved, although the cost of training can be a limiting factor. Training in a classroom is one thing, but it is a different matter applying this knowledge out in the field, where experience counts. This is only gained by working in the field with various types of systems and equipment, as well as facing and resolving typical problems. Fortunately, almost all the major suppliers offer excellent technical backup and support, both at their premises and on site when required,” said Douglas Evans from ESSG Technologies.
“Retaining skilled people will always be a problem because there are many opportunities out there. By providing a stable and reasonable working environment, with interesting challenges and room to improve oneself, can help companies to retain skilled people.”
“In addition, the skills need to match the statutory requirements of the individual companies, in order to be worthwhile in the industry. IP skills are good in terms of the infrastructure of a security system, while traditional security skills will indicate practical issues such as what is the best positioning for a camera in terms of the holistic design. Somebody with both skill sets will obviously be at an advantage,” Monk said.
“You need to implement a two-pronged approach in order to acquire skills. You first have to upskill your own workforce via in-house training, in line with the SSETA guidelines. Then you can utilise IP-based product training via the OEMs to obtain accreditation for installations,” he continued.
Dealing with poachers
“While acquiring the skills may be relatively painless, retaining these skills is a different kettle of fish. The smaller companies typically wait for the large companies to train their employees, then they headhunt these valuable employees. In order to mitigate against this, you need to put a value on the training by ensuring your employees sign a loyalty contract,” Monk pointed out.
“You have no choice but to train and re-train if you want to be able to offer a continued high level of service. Training can be seen as an incentive, as it gives employees additional skills, which will make them more marketable in the future. When training is costly, one could insist that employees sign a contract to remain with the company for a certain period after training is completed. If they leave before that time has elapsed, they are then liable for paying a pro rata portion of the training fees,” said Evans.
Marius Maré, divisional MD of Jasco Security, said that his company uses recruitment agencies that specialise in the security industry to acquire skilled people. “You must get references from recent employers and you need to target scarce skills and source them. We have the philosophy of encouraging employees to study, then we reimburse them once they pass and, at the same time, reward them with a bonus.
“You need to create an environment where employees are facilitated to take the initiative. We have a low turnover of staff because of this philosophy. Key individuals are offered a three-year retainer as an incentive,” he explained.
Keeping customers sweet
“It is difficult in the face of the bakkie brigade to retain clients. However, we are a reputation-based company and we are able to ensure high quality levels,” Steve Alberts, MD at Firetech Projects affirmed.
“We have a very specific target market. Clients are more likely to choose reliable vendors and installers and we regularly communicate with clients to determine their specific needs. The biggest challenge currently is the huge shortage of skills in the security market, especially in biometrics and access control. We are currently looking at founding a training academy but we need participation from other players in the industry to make this a reality,” said Maré.
“There will always be companies who can offer cheaper products and services. The key is to create a mutually beneficial relationship with the client and ensure that you give them good value for money. The service provider provides an excellent service to the client so that their systems are always working and the service provider benefits by acquiring repeat business. Continuity and reliability of service is what will keep your customers loyal,” added Evans.
Monk said that customer loyalty is difficult when most client companies are cost conscious. “However, the blue chip corporates require more in terms of service and quality. They want suppliers to have a national footprint, dedicated staff, PSIRA accreditation and registration. The liabilities in large projects are very high so they will seek out the reputable systems integrators. From the service provider’s perspective, you need to provide the service you promise. A Service Level Agreement (SLA) is very important and outlines what your deliverables are.”
“On an SLA we ensure that a normal technician can maintain the system, but we also allow for a commissioning engineer to overlook the systems twice a year to determine that everything complies with specs,” Alberts said.
“We have various SLAs that we utilise, tailor-made to suit the client’s requirements. There are negotiations between the two legal entities to ensure things like bonus and penalty clauses are clearly outlined and documented,” Monk added.
“We only accept those SLAs where we are certain that the contract will be monitored, as per specific measurements we have in place. The contract needs to be signed off by the client’s security manager in accordance with the roster within the SLA. We will then be paid as per the electronically- or manually-generated report at the end of each month,” Monk asserted.
“We will not sign a contract that has no limit on liabilities, as this is then open to abuse. This does not, however mean we will not provide a service, but rather that the finite details of the service need to be established from our perspective as a supplier. In both our SLAs and our Master Service Agreements, we stipulate the warranty periods and the coverage of equipment in terms of a percentage,” he continued.
Maré added: “Clients want to know that you are responsible after a project if something fails. Depending on the client, we will not just walk away if something fails outside the warranty period. We will do a free assessment and provide them with quotations. Differentiating between normal maintenance/warranty work and work you charge for is a very grey area. You will always find that in a service call, someone wants you to move a camera. We will move it free of charge if this is not a regular request from that specific client. If the client does this often, we will charge for it at normal rates. We do try to educate our clients in this respect.”
“In general, maintenance is done either: (1) On a callout basis, where the customer pays for time and materials used; (2) a limited contract, where the customer pays a monthly fee that covers labour costs for callouts and pays for materials as required to do the repairs needed; or (3) a fully-comprehensive maintenance package, which covers all labour and materials. For all options, services are provided within normal office hours. Any work required outside normal working hours will be charged at overtime rates,” explained Evans.
“Most SLA or maintenance contracts will not cover damage to equipment or systems due to negligence, malicious damage, vandalism, acts of God, civil unrest etc, and both time and materials to effect repairs will be chargeable,” he continued.
“As long as the products are under warranty, nobody else can work on the systems. If they do, the warranty lapses and we will not supply the administrator password to them until the end of the contract,” notes Alberts.
Health and safety
All participants said that they implement very strict occupational health and safety (OHS) processes and maintain a comprehensive OHS file. While this is very costly, it is critical and ensures supplier compliance with the client’s OHS regulations. The needs vary depending on the client and can include the possession of a fire-fighting certificate by all on-site employees, as well as full medical certification.
“It is important that adequate resources are assigned at the beginning of a contract to ensure the job is properly done. Once you start cutting corners to reduce costs, service levels will drop and you will ultimately lose that client,” Evans cautioned.
“It is a constant battle to get the right skills set on site to execute projects. Due to the shortage of certain skills, individuals have to be at different sites daily, which often results in us not completing the project on time,” Maré pointed out.
“Unfortunately, clients do not necessarily want to pay for the skills we deploy as SIs. The IT guys can command much higher hourly rates than those provided to security specialists. While smaller companies can survive on lower margins, it cripples the larger companies who are continually investing in their employees,” Monk concluded.
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