Finding and keeping good IT people a struggle for Canadian firms


“Finders, keepers,” the old saw goes – but many Canadian companies say it’s difficult to do either, as far their human resources go.

Organizations of all shapes and sizes in all parts of Canada are having difficulty attracting and retaining the employees.

The problem is particularly acute in Alberta, where Calgary’s boomtown population recently crossed the one million mark.

That’s the main finding of a recent survey of 232 Canadian organizations conducted by Hewitt Associates, an international provider of human resources (HR) outsourcing and consulting services.

About 75 per cent of all respondents said attracting and retaining people was a major challenge.

Thirteen Canadian technology companies participated in the survey, and there were some interesting variances in the findings compared with general trends, says Cathy Course, a senior benefits consultant at Hewitt’s Calgary office.

About 85 per cent of these respondents said attraction and retention was an issue, significantly higher than the national average.

“While this survey feedback may be anecdotal, it is nevertheless significant,” says Course. “What we’re hearing from IT companies, and also IT departments outside the tech sector, is that it’s a real struggle finding and keeping good IT people.”

While IT organizations may say they are getting desperate, they aren’t acting as desperate as they have in previous eras of labour shortages such as the 1990s, when companies hired inexperienced tech staff out of universities.

But they are looking at ways and means to offer more flexible arrangements that offer greater fulfillment of IT workers’ needs, says Course.

“What we learned from this study is it’s important to look at who your workforce is and what their needs are, and then ensure you design HR programs and practices that meet their needs. It’s called the ’employment deal’ in HR lingo, and you must ensure it appeals to the people you’re trying to attract and retain.”

She says looking at the demographic composition of their workforce can help organizations decide what changes to implement.

Based on survey feedback, there are more younger workers in IT organizations, especially in the Gen X (26 – 40 years old) category, says Course, pointing out there are about 18 per cent more compared to the national average. Flexible hours and benefits are key in attracting and retaining people in this demographic, who are often struggling with young children and mortgages.

“Virtual work arrangements abound in IT organizations – they have more flexible hours and work at home arrangements than other sectors,” says Course, pointing out that only about 60 per cent of organizations in other sectors offer the same flexibility. “But IT workers tend to demand it as part of their work-life balance .”

She says IT workers also request more unpaid sabbaticals compared with other sectors. “A lot of IT workers may be looking to achieve that work-life balance by working really hard when they’re working, but also playing really hard for a few months on sabbatical.”

Retaining older workersis also a bigger issue for IT organizations compared with other sectors. About 30 per cent of IT sector respondents said they expected workers to stay on past the age of 65, more than double the rate of other sectors, says Course.

To retain these older workers, IT organizations are responding with more flexible pension and work arrangements. “Many of these employees expect a reduction in hours before they retire, and there are more requirements for workplace modifications,” says Course.

She says organizations should take a disciplined approach in developing the right employment deal to appeal to the right people. A holistic and strategic approach that looks at the company’s current demographics and business needs across all departments, and looks to the future to where the business is growing in the near future can help organizations decide what type of people they need to deliver that growth and what employment deal they need to assemble to attract and retain the right talent .

The consequences of an undisciplined, ad hoc approach can be dire, says Course. If companies react piecemeal to requests for this or that benefit, they may be perceived as treating their employees inconsistently.

If it’s not done properly way, “it may affect the way your company is perceived by the people you’re trying to attract and keep,” says Course. “The word out on the street may be that your company is unfair.”

The issue may have a significant impact on IT organizations that want to attract the youngest workers entering the workforce, Gen Y. Attracting this demographic, which is well-versed in text-messaging, social networking and other collaborative technologies, may pose organizations some challenges.

Traditional recruiting approaches will not work with these people, says Don Tapscott , pundit and CEO of New Paradigm, a Toronto-based futurist think-tank.

“You are wasting your money if you use advertising for recruitment. They will come to you by word of mouth,” says Tapscott, who has a research project under way to investigate Gen Y in the workplace.

And retention strategies will also need to be rethought.

“You are wasting your money if you try to retain them in traditional ways. What they really care about is: Are they learning? Are they meeting interesting people? Are they having fun? These are the three big drivers to retain them.”

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