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
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
”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
”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
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.