Thursday, April 18, 2024

As Hiring Heats Up, Time to Keep Workers Happy

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Despite a U.S. economy that can’t seem to make up its mind, there is

little doubt in the minds of CIOs, hiring managers and industry watchers

that IT hiring is poised to grow steadily in the next 18 to 24 months.

That’s good news for workers who’ve experienced long bouts of

unemployment since the Internet bubble burst in 2000. And it’s good news

for IT professionals who have hung on to their jobs but have been

steadily saddled with additional duties, while their departments shrank.

Such employees may have wanted to head for greener pastures — but for

the past few years, such pastures have been few and far between.

Well, things appear to be greening up.

And if you’re in charge of hiring, managing or retaining IT workers,

that means you face challenges that have been absent for years. As the

IT job market heats up, managers are under new pressure to hang on to

valued employees.

Hiring Increases

According to recent reports from Stamford, Conn.-based research firm

Gartner Inc., U.S. IT spending will increase an average of 5 percent

this year, with some industries (such as communications) boosting

spending a whopping 17 percent. Moreover, enterprises are ”optimistic

about spending more on internal staff,” Gartner reports. And increasing

staffing ranked high on IT managers priority lists.

It must be noted, however, that despite the optimism and overall

spending increase, another Gartner survey finds that the percentage of

IT operating budgets devoted to internal staff is continuing to shrink,

from 33 percent in 2001 to a projected 22 percent this year. But that

doesn’t mean companies are not hiring; it just means that the trend

toward using outsourcers and system integrators continues to grow.

But IT workers are being hired at a higher rate than in the past several

years, and forward-looking CIOs and hiring managers have spotted this

trend. They’re responding quickly to make sure they can hire the most

skilled IT workers — and that once hired, those workers stick around.

RHI Technology, the IT business unit of San Francisco-based staffing

firm Robert Half International Inc., found in a recent study that 58

percent of CIOs surveyed said keeping their best people is becoming more

critical as the economy gains momentum. According to Katherine Spencer

Lee, RHI Technology executive director, ”The job market is growing

steadily — good people are getting harder to find. One of our clients

just told me [a programmer/analyst] just resigned, and we haven’t seen

much of that in recent years. People are starting to explore their

options again.”

Seeking Experience

”No question, it’s more difficult today to find qualified personnel,”

says Dave LaGreca, CIO at Harte-Hanks, a direct and targeted marketing

company based in San Antonio, Texas. LaGreca cites several possible

reasons, including the stronger U.S. economy and improved morale among

IT workers who believe their employers may have ”turned the corner”.

He says Harte-Hanks finds some positions much more difficult than others

to fill.

”There are still lots of candidates available,” LaGreca says, ”but

more senior folks, like senior network personnel, are a lot tougher to

find than a few years ago.”

Fortunately for Harte-Hanks, the company’s 42 business units have not

yet seen an appreciable rise in attrition, LaGreca says. But he knows

that’s a possibility if the overall IT environment continues to improve.

On the hiring side, though, Harte-Hanks may be forced to become more


”In the past three years, we could fill positions without a recruit

firm,” LaGreca says. ”But now we’re mulling hiring a recruitment firm

for senior positions.”

Most large IT organizations are in the same boat. Entry-level IT and

network administrators are relatively easy to find, but specialists in

popular enterprise applications are another matter. Experts in SAP AG’s

enterprise resource management (ERP) software, for example, or customer

relationship management (CRM) tools from Siebel Systems Inc. and

Peoplesoft Corp. are quite likely to be working for outsourcing firms or

system administrators.

According to RHI Technology’s Lee, the scarcity of experienced ERP, CRM

and security specialists has forced some businesses to fill those

positions with contract workers. However, she adds, savvy IT managers

make sure that knowledge transfer is an integral part of the contract,

so that when the hired guns leave, internal staffers can run ongoing


Increased attention to knowledge transfer is one key way to stay ahead

as the employment picture picks up. Another is internal training,

mentoring and coaching. That sounds like common sense, of course, and it

is. But the fact is that the past several years have been dominated by

painful staff cuts and a focus on just getting through the day. As a

result, many IT organizations got away from fundamental management


One such practice is to track newer workers’ progress, and groom those

who are most promising. One way to do this is through ”stretch” goals

designed to push employees into unfamiliar territory. Harte-Hanks

LaGreca says his organization uses stretch goals both to cross-train

workers in new areas of technology (for example, a network specialist

might be asked to learn database management skills) and — even more

importantly in an era in which IT and business are tightly intertwined

— gently push technologists into business-facing roles, such as

business analysis or requirements gathering.

According to Dianne Morello, a Gartner analyst, this type of

cross-training is invaluable to employer and employee alike, especially

as it becomes more difficult to find experienced help.

”If they see someone with high potential, but for whom some skills are

weak… for that employee’s credibility to grow, they need to strengthen

those muscles,” Morello says. ”For example, if a manager sees that a

person hasn’t had the opportunity to present to the board, but wants to,

you’ve got to make that opportunity available.”

In the end, what IT managers need to do in an era of increased

employment is pay attention to fundamental hiring, training and

retention practices. They’ve always been important, but the cold truth

is that for several years, workers were afraid to leave their jobs, and

overworked managers could get away with sub-par employee development.

That has changed, and IT groups would do well to take notice.

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