CIO panel recommends hiring IT rookies

In a tight and competitive information technology labour market, a group of CIOs said last month that companies looking to attract and retain employees have to hire raw talent, invest heavily in training, and offer employment perks such as flexible hours, telecommuting and job sharing.

“You actually don’t need people with a lot of experience – the technologies are changing so fast [anyway],” said Andre Mendes, CIO at the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) in Alexandria, Va. “What you need are people with potential, with love for their technology and the ability to learn quickly.” At PBS, Mendes added, meeting IT employment needs often means hiring people right out of college.

At Washington, D.C.-based Potomac Electric Power Co., the focus also has been on hiring IT rookies such as new college and technology-school graduates.

“We do want to retain our people,” said Ken Cohn, the utility’s CIO. “On the other hand, we know that we’re not going to in all cases. And so what we’re trying to do is constantly backfill with rookies, young talent . . . that we can train quickly.”

Mendes, Cohn and other IT executives discussed labour issues as part of a panel at the 2000 Greater Washington Technology Showcase conference and technical expo. Members of the panel said the key to hiring and retaining workers is being flexible with employee needs and staying in tune with their career goals and plans.

If companies provide their employees with viable career paths, education opportunities, the ability to work with new technologies and “give them a life that is semi-sane,” retention rates tend to be high, Mendes said.

But Mendes said IT managers also should think about hiring more minorities and disabled people. Older IT employees with skills that are no longer in demand also have potential, he added: “If they had the ability, from an intellectual standpoint, to learn the legacy systems, why can’t they have the ability to learn the new systems?”

The need to be creative in employment matters is being driven, in part, by the continuing IT labor shortage, Mendes and other panelists noted. For example, Meta Group Inc. in Stamford, Conn. estimates that there will be 850,000 vacant IT jobs in the U.S. by year’s end.

Fairfax, Va. has succeeded in filling all but 13 of its 367 IT positions by emphasizing its flexibility on issues such as job sharing and by making few extra demands on a worker’s time, said CIO David Molchany. Employees rarely have to work on weekends, except on special projects. Even then, “it’s nothing like the grind of the private sector,” he said.

The federal government, which is facing a pressing need for IT help because of growing numbers of retirement-eligible workers, is attractive to people who aren’t primarily motivated by salary, said Alan Balutis, director of the advanced technology program at the U.S. Department of Commerce.

“Not everyone wants to work 80 hours a week with a chance at being a millionaire at some point in their life,” he said.

But one thing the federal government can’t do is to move quickly to extend an offer to a potential employee, Balutis said. Getting a federal job frequently can take 60 to 90 days. “I couldn’t compete [with the private sector] even if they gave me monies to match the salaries,” he said.