How to Win the Talent War

Times are good for technology workers looking for a new job or just entering the workforce. Already one of the fastest-growing industries in the U.S. economy, the tech sector will continue to expand, thanks to the ongoing innovation in computer systems design.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of computer programmers and information systems experts is expected to grow faster than the average for all occupations through the year 2014. Consequently, the demand for managers to oversee these workers and systems administrators will also increase.

In addition, replacements will be needed for info-tech workers who retire or move into other occupations. Unemployment for skilled IT professionals is currently less than 2 percent, experts say, and situation will only tighten over the next 10 to 15 years as baby boomers retire from the workforce.

The Coming Talent Gap

At the same time, there has been a marked decrease in the number of people graduating from school with technology degrees since 2000, studies show. “My hypothesis is that IT has been less of an attractive area after the dotcom bubble burst,” observes Katherine Spencer Lee, executive director of Robert Half Technology, a staffing firm in Menlo Park, Calif.

“It is absolutely getting more challenging — not only in the identification of the right talent but the attraction,” says David Bair, national vice president of KForce Technology Staffing in Tampa, Fla. “The reality is, the number of individuals available to do the jobs is not enough. There continue to be gaps.”
Tory Soli, president and senior managing partner at I.T. Staffing Services in Phoenix, Ariz., offers another theory on the unsatisfied demand for IT workers. “A lot of companies outsourced to India and got cheap labor, but found it wasn’t working [that well] and are taking things back in-house,”‘ says Soli.

Attracting the Best and the Brightest

IT managers are already preparing for the coming talent war. Interestingly, while money is an obvious lure, it’s not an automatic deal-clincher. The winning strategies to attract the best and the brightest are more varied than you might think:

  • Give IT professionals the opportunity to work on cutting-edge projects Bair says that IT staff want their skills to stay current, and if a company “isn’t bringing in new modules or tools, then their skills are going backwards.” His advice: “Move to the latest versions of tools or applications.”
  • Be willing to accept less than perfection “You can’t expect one person to do everything. An application developer is a programmer; don’t ask them to maintain the system,” advises Soli. “If you want 10 things out of this person and they only have nine, add a little more flexibility and look at the person’s softer skills.” Also consider taking a chance on recent graduates who can grow with solid training.
  • Write a job description that stands out  Bair suggests writing a job description that differentiates your company from the others. “You have to sell what you have as an organization. It’s not enough to say ‘I need a Java developer.’ Say, ‘I need a Java developer who can come into a dynamic organization and can deliver on a cutting-edge web portal,'” he says. “Get more creative in how you [develop] a marketing campaign around open positions.”

Don’t just round up the usual suspects. Look for talented workers by leveraging current staff who belong to user groups and key professional organizations. “It behooves you to have people in your organization who can network and identify those individuals who may be looking,” says Bair. Offer referral bonuses as well.

Strengthen Retention Strategies

Turnover is expensive. According to a recent Harvard Business Review article, the fully loaded cost of replacing a worker who leaves (excluding lost productivity) is typically 1.5 to 2.5 times the worker’s annual salary. In a tight job market, companies can’t afford environments that people don’t want to work in.

There are three primary reasons people stay with an employer:

  • They like the boss they work for “Retention starts by having thorough training programs for your leaders so they know how to motivate, mentor, lead and train individuals underneath them,” says Bair.
  • They want to know they can grow  Employees want a clear career path that enables them to build a future with the company. Organizations need to create strong career development programs that build in the opportunity for new initiatives and challenges.
  • They want to keep learning  Employees like to keep their skills up to date. “Investing in new technologies is one of the most underestimated retention tools there is,” says Bair. “People will realize their company is trying to stay cutting-edge.”

Another way to retain good people is to create an environment that is fun and makes their overall life easier, which can be done for little or no cost. Google is frequently cited as an example of a company that offers free food, transportation, flexible hours and the ability to telecommute — not to mention a coin-free laundry room in the Mountain View, Calif., office. Having Ping-Pong tables and latte machines at the office can’t hurt, either. Even if you can’t pay competitive salaries, Soli suggests offering potential employees extra vacation time.

As the IT talent war heats up, companies will need incentives to attract and retain the right people. Don’t underestimate the power of painting a positive picture of the functional and business skills the person can gain by working for your organization and how the experience will lead to greater opportunities in the future. Just be sure to turn that rosy picture into reality. Broken promises are the surest way to lose your talent today — and leave you in the lurch tomorrow.