Could Growing IT-Staffing Demand Boost IBM’s Legacy IT-Services Business?

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International Business Machines Corp. (NYSE: IBM) has been dead money for long enough that very few investors can find a net improvement worthy of new dollars to deploy into its shares. Warren Buffett has sold out of most of the IBM stake once valued massively. And the new growth initiatives and imperatives have grown, but not enough to handily alter the big picture in IBM’s declining core IT-services business.

Could IT-staffing, even in temporary workers, help offset some of the core IT-services decline for IBM? Before considering this as a new opportunity, or even before considering it as an assured fix, the first thing that needs to be understood is that this is not exactly an apples-to-apples solution to turn IBM back around.

According to Staffing Industry Analysts (SIA), the IT staffing segment has a relatively high temporary agency penetration rate while supply constraints exist in the United States. The group’s “IT Staffing Growth Assessment: 2018 Update” signals that roughly half of IT staffing revenue is derived from the United States.

IBM is a member of the group’s Contingent Workforce Strategies Council along with the likes of Capgemini, Apple, Cisco, Dell, Unisys and a couple dozen more large companies.

Taking the thousands of IT-services workers from IBM and translating higher IT staffing may not be an easy transition into higher revenues for IBM. For starters, there are obviously some instances where there will be a large gap of expectations from a company over what it might have to pay versus what IBM might charge. There are also geographic limitations with so many workers being foreign, or located in areas where they just cannot go to where some of the work is needed, and there are many restrictions in annual H-1B visas.

All this being said, it seems fair to wonder if IBM could somehow help capitalize on this. It could matter if IBM was able to lock up more local and international staffing revenues. IBM’s revenue in 23014 was $92.8 billion, but that fell to $81.7 billion in 2015, then down to $79.9 billion in 2016, and then down to $79.1 billion in 2017.

What if IBM could capture some additional market share of the growth in IT staffing needs? Thomson Reuters is calling for IBM’s 2018 revenues to go back up to $80.1 billion in 2018 and $80.3 billion in 2019. With IBM’s strategic imperatives growing, even adding on another unexpected $2 billion or $3 billion and hoping for stronger growth from new areas could add up to a surprise victory for IBM investors who have suffered for years.

And as for the actual 2018 forecasts, the SIA has now projected that annual revenues will grow by another 4% in 2018 for eight straight years of growth to an all-time high. That total figure was put at $30.9 billion for this year. An earlier assessment put the global IT temporary IT staffing market worth a grand total of $59 billion as of 2016.

There are many problems here. The IT-staffing demands are higher than the supply, and the digital transformation of business is creating a demand for workers with specialized IT skill sets. Only 6% of the IT workforce in the US is between the ages of 20 and 24, compared to 9% for the overall economy. Coding bootcamps are also said to now be an increasingly important resource in accelerating IT workforce development.

Training and education have lagged the technological demands, and there is said to be a deepening skills mismatch in the IT sector. As noted earlier, the annual cap on H-1B visas is hurting the ability to bring in new talent as well.

The SIA report even said:

Temporary IT staffing is on a secular uptrend as buyers demand the flexibility to tap into these specialized skills, while managing costs. While a shortage of high-level IT talent enhances the value proposition of staffing services, it has also resulted in acute recruiting challenges.

The real question for IBM is if this great opportunity and growth segment would even matter. It’s far from a direct victory, although there have been numerous reports over the course of 2018 signaling that IBM wants to reorganize and/or redeploy thousands of worker roles — even if the company pledged to hire 2,000 veteran workers and a total of up to 25,000 workers over the next four years.

It’s hard to take one industry outlook piece and derive that it could be a huge win for a company like IBM. We have already admitted that some (or maybe even a large portion) of the opportunities might be too low in revenues or might have lower gross margin tolerance than IBM is willing to accept. That being said, it’s pretty obvious that IBM would also admit it has missed many opportunities that could have rekindled growth.

One last consideration is that IBM has a $143.5 billion market value. It takes a lot to move the needle for a company like Big Blue.

IBM shares were last seen down 10-cents at $155.06 on Wednesday shortly before the close of trading. IBM has a 52-week range of $139.13 to $182.55, and it has a consensus analyst target price of $170.75 from Thomson Reuters.

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