Keeping your investment from walking out

The ups and downs of the marketplace will impact the job market but that doesn’t mean companies can throw their employee retention policies out with the bath water.

Don Thompson, a partner with Deloitte and Touche in Toronto, said the turnover rate for IT professionals seems to be on the decrease, and he listed the changes in the space as one reason.

“Much of what drove the turnover was the success of the start-up space and they are now collapsing, rather than expanding. There’s much less of an issue of people having other (employment) options,” Thompson said.

He noted retention is still very important. “On the one hand there may be people saying they don’t need to focus on [retention] anymore,” he said. “Our take is that people are still your best resource and the focus has to remain on them. If you’ve invested years in training people and they start leaving, that’s a huge investment walking out the door.”

Mike Tindal, director of marketing for SAS Canada in Toronto, agreed that a good retention policy still delivers a good return on investment. He noted that it makes sense to spend money on key employee programs to keep people, because it costs a lot more to acquire and train new employees.

SAS has a turnover rate of five per cent, compared with the industry’s 20 per cent average.

“SAS has a good reputation in the business in terms of retention,” Tindal said. According to Tindal SAS has focused some of their retention efforts on virtual teaming, or “SWAT teams.”

“You are not just working within your own department, or your own group, but you could be part of a group that is outside your office or even region. That gives people a broader opportunity to learn more.”

He said traditional methods of retention are sometimes focused on reducing costs, but he stressed that sometimes spending an extra buck now will save you more later.

SAS is also starting career path planning initiatives. They offer skills upgrading for employees, and Tindal said some per-employee dollars are set aside for just that.

“So you can provide alternatives to the employees, show them the horizontal way of climbing the corporate pyramid,” he said.

He noted that the boom of companies has probably forever changed the look of many IT firms.

“The younger demographic in the job market has a different environment to go to and corporate organizations like established software and hardware vendors have to revisit what they do to attract and retain employees.”

Thompson noted Deloitte and Touche built a separate unit around their Internet and e-commerce capabilities. “We created an environment that looked like a company, if I can put it like that,” Thompson said. “That counter-cultural environment. The kinds of recreational and employee support things you might expect to find in a Like a foosball table – which I think is the standard that everybody is supposed to have.”

Rogers Cantel AT&T implemented a new graduate hire program that it hopes will lead to long-term employee loyalty, according to Laurie Seto.

Seto, vice-president of desktop and network applications at Rogers, said grads have amazing skills and new ideas.

“They’ve been highly productive,” she said. “They’re more mature, highly skilled and easily trained (than Rogers had expected).”

Rogers has spent a lot of time on other retention strategies, Seto said. It has implemented, for example, a career planning program, which includes a skills database and opportunities for acquiring new skills.

“We provide all vehicles of training to suit the learning styles of the employee. We found we had to double our core training budget,” she said.

It also implemented performance rewards and skills-based pay. Seto noted employees wanted to be rewarded on a project-to-project basis.

She said they also brought in retention pay. “It’s pay just to stay.”

One aggressive move by Deloitte and Touche was to introduce a regular concierge service. “That service was designed initially to help people who were travelling a lot,” Thomson said. “So that people don’t have to go out and find these services for themselves, like groceries and laundry.”

He called it a stress reducer and noted that running a household when you are away from it often can be difficult, and the company was trying to find a way to alleviate that.

Tindal stated that communication is key, as it helps employees feel attached to the company. “I think there is a mistake in emphasizing external communications about changes in the company over internal communications. There can be backlash to that,” he said.

SAS also puts out an annual employee survey and Tindal said most policy changes are based directly on that feedback mechanism.