As more organisations adopt server virtualisation software, they’re also looking to hire people who have worked with the technology in live applications.

But such workers can be hard to find, as Joel Sweatte, IT manager at East Carolina University’s College of Technology and Computer Science, recently discovered when he placed a help-wanted ad for an IT systems engineer with virtualisation skills.

Sweatte received about 40 applications for the job at the university, but few of the applicants had any virtualisation experience, and he ended up hiring someone who had none. “I’m fishing in an empty ocean,” Sweatte said.

To give his new hire a crash course in virtualisation, Sweatte brought him to market leader VMware’s annual user conference in San Francisco last month. “That’s a major expenditure for a university,” Sweatte said of the conference and travel costs. “[But] I wanted him to take a drink from the fire hose.”

Sweatte isn’t the only IT manager who has had trouble finding workers who already have virtualisation skills. VMware said its VMworld 2007 conference drew more than 10,000 people — up from about 7,000 at last year’s event. But it was common to find conference attendees who were new to virtualisation and largely self-taught on the technology.

For instance, Jeff Perry, IT manager at HealthBridge, began deploying virtualisation software six months ago at the not-for-profit organisation, which electronically connects area hospitals and other medical facilities so doctors can exchange patient data. Perry came to VMworld to pick up some additional technical skills and said he plans to spend a lot of time learning about virtual systems.

The conference was a good starting point for doing so, Perry said, “but there is so much research that you have to do after this.”

And there’s no question in Perry’s mind that server virtualisation has become a critical IT component. “Hardware right now is so underutilised,” he said. “To carve out spaces for virtual machines is the wave of the future.”

IT professionals can certainly train themselves to work with virtualisation software, VMworld attendees said. But some added that it helps to have acquired a broad base of data centre skills beforehand.

Jostens, which makes class rings, yearbooks and other products, is a VMware user. “In the old days, you really just needed to understand the server,” said Kirk Marty, a senior systems engineer at Jostens. “Now you have to understand not just the server, but also the command lines of the Linux operating system, networking, how switches work, storage and fibre connections.”

Carter & Burgess decided to adopt virtualisation technology about six months ago to improve its disaster recovery capabilities. Michael Youngers, a lead systems administrator for the storage and storage-area networking groups at the engineering and consulting firm, said that after the decision was made, he taught himself how to use the software. “I stumbled into it,” Youngers said.

But after seeing how virtualisation has led to server consolidation, the removal of old hardware, and lower power and cooling costs at Carter & Burgess, Youngers is convinced that it has become a technology that IT workers need to know. “You are going to have to get on board,” he said.

Peter Marx, chief IT architect at Knorr-Bremse GmbH, has been involved in x86 server virtualisation for several years. That makes the Munich-based manufacturer of truck and railroad components a relatively long-term user of the technology.

At first, Marx couldn’t find anyone with virtualisation skills. Such people “simply weren’t available then,” he said. IT workers at Knorr-Bremse attended some training programs to pick up virtualisation know-how. But mostly, Marx said, “they simply did it.”