Learning what high-tech workers want

Companies that need to attract skilled research and development workers should do what they can to get them, but without losing sight of the company’s needs in the process, say two high-tech employment experts.

Sylvie St-Onge, associate professor of human resources management and Michel Magnan, professor of accounting at HEC-Montreal in Montreal, say R&D employees have distinct needs compared to other employees, and should be treated accordingly.

The challenge is to balance those needs with the more fundamental business need to stay profitable. “R&D employees [should] be aware that money is not unlimited; most firms have liquidity problems at some point, and their perspective should be long term,” Magnan said.

Magnan and St-Onge made the comments during a session for human resource managers called Recruiting & Retraining High-Tech Personnel: A Challenge for Canadian Organizations. The session was part of the Human Resources Professionals of Ontario (HRPAO) Annual Conference and Exposition held in Toronto last month.

The two professors have been studying how companies attract and retain skilled and technical workers. St-Onge is an expert in performance management, compensation and work-family issues, while Magnan’s research covers incentive compensation and financial analysis.

Both said they’ve received numerous questions from human resource professionals about how to find and keep high-tech workers.

By now, most IT companies are aware of the so-called skills shortage problem. To help illustrate the point, Magnan told attendees about the plight of a Montreal company that designs flight simulators.

“That company could hire all the graduating engineers of all four Montreal universities, and there would still be openings in the firms,” he said. And what makes the hiring situation even worse in Canada is that high tech R&D is conducted primarily in three or four major urban centres, and competition in those areas for workers is intense.

Last spring, Magnan and St-Onge sent out a questionnaire to almost 1,800 organizations across Canada identified as having R&D activities, many of them software and computer companies. Nearly 200 companies responded. The goal was to learn what the average R&D professional is looking for in a job, and what companies are doing to attract and retain them.

According to Magnan and St-Onge, the survey results demonstrated that R&D professionals are clearly becoming a very distinct class of workers.

In particular, they found that typical R&D workers expect a high degree of autonomy in the work environment; that they are extremely valuable to high-tech organizations, and know it; that they want recognition for their work; they want to be managed differently than others in the company; and they want to have access to skills training.

“R&D managers have problems with this aspect of managing R&D personnel. On the other end of that spectrum, they need to also ensure they meet R&D employee needs if they want to attract, satisfy and retain them,” Magnan said.

Survey respondents said they were having a particularly hard time rewarding individual work in an area where most products and tools are developed by teams. Magnan said the survey showed that HR managers have no silver bullets when it comes to this problem; they’re simply trying to promote team cohesion by keeping individual team members happy.

What’s clear is that companies successful at finding skilled workers are usually more far-sighted.

“You need to be a leader. If you’re the first one to offer something, people are going to get excited. That’s what we get from the survey.” That means always checking up on what your “competitors” are offering, and trying to better that.

Still, the basics haven’t changed: attractive work environments, good pay, challenging long-term projects, opportunities to upgrade skills and access to good housing and quality of life are all key to retaining good staff.

The bottom line is that hiring high-tech workers takes a lot of hard work and Magnan admits that, “in high-tech, the exceptions become the rule. [But] you need to be fully aware of what’s going on in the market to be one step ahead.”