How to attract and retain IT talent in 2012

The tight Australian IT job market has been touted as a blessing for job seekers and a curse for employers. Hamish Barwick looks at strategies companies can use to stop valued staff jumping ship.

With an economy the envy of the OECD and a long-running IT skills shortage showing little sign of abatement, technology workers have the ability to pick and choose their roles and dictate terms like never before.

For employers, attracting staff is only half the battle. Poaching is rampant, staff loyalty low and demands for flexibility, pay and perks high. However, all is not doom and gloom as there are tools and tactics available to secure their skills your organisation needs.

Increasingly, employer-employee discussion centre around money, and obviously money can solve many problems. But equally, negotiations can be more subtle and employee priorities can be more about workplace culture and freedoms: such as the use of social media and BYO devices at work.

Encouraging staff to take on new roles and develop, as well as carrots such as longer periods of leave, working from home arrangement and more flexible hours are also helping used to keep employees happy, motivated and working for you, rather than the competition.

Computerworld Australia speaks to the experts to glean their top five tools for attracting and retaining staff.

Tip One: Show me the Money
There’s no escaping it: the number one means of attracting and retaining staff is, ultimately, all about the money. The challenge, Candle Recruitment general manager, Linda Trevor, says is that salaries at present are highly competitive, and due to multiple drivers. For one, IT wages are typically higher in Perth, WA, due to the mining boom, creating a strong source of competition for east-coast based organisations.

Large-scale IT projects, put on ice due to the cooling of the global market during the past couple of years have also begun thawing, putting pressure on wages in NSW and Victoria she says.

The high number of contract workers within the IT skills pool also means those wishing to lure contractors into full-time work are either faced with a huge wages bill– to compete with the higher pay rates inherent in contracting arrangements — or must look beyond pure remuneration.

“People will try to tie contractors down with permanent roles but if someone is going to offer a contractor a permanent job they have to offer some benefits because otherwise they’re not going to do it,” Trevor says.

For example, employers would need to offer greater flexibility, such as the opportunity to work from home or on-the-job-training which they could not otherwise get through their contracting arrangements. “Project managers and business analysts are in demand in all states but the most important thing with the job roles is people are looking for multi-skilled people who can do two types of jobs or have very good business and communication skills,” she says.

“It used to be that you could put a developer in the corner and they wouldn’t speak to anybody but it’s not like that anymore because people are much more involved in the project.”

Trevor adds that the ability to attract staff can also hinge less on the money, but more on the industry and whether it is known for having exciting projects for staff to challenges themselves with and hone their skills.

By way of example she points to government as being able to attract IT recruits because major projects are now going ahead following the global financial crises. Telecommunication companies, banks and resources companies are also in the midst of major transformation and enablement projects.

Tip Two: Flexibility and Rewards
While salary is important in attracting staff, PeopleBank chief executive, Peter Acheson, says remuneration ranks between fifth and eighth — depending on the role — on the list of factors of whether a person will stay with an organisation over the longer term

That means that in order to retain the staff they have got, employers need to create interesting work and as well as reward their people.

“I think it’s really important to ensure that people are clear on what is expected of them in terms of the work they are doing,” Acheson says. “That can be making sure that on a monthly basis there is an opportunity for them to review their work and progress on a project with their immediate supervisor.”

Seemingly obvious things like making sure staff have access to the resources and infrastructure they need to actually carry out their role can also be powerful determinants of how happy an employee is.

“You hear some awful stories about people who join companies and are expected to join a large IT project but the PCs are too slow or they can never get access to the system they need to be programming in,” Acheson says.

A good practice he had observed was the assigning of a work ‘buddy’ to a new staff member to help with not only the job component of a role but also the social component, thus helping build a sense of team and shared endeavour.

Another positive practice was placing staff in rotational assignments allowing the company to leverage people’s strengths and expose staff to various aspects of the business. Staff also benefit from the additional variety, ability to develop new skills and having an end in sight for those less-than-enjoyable projects. “A lot of what I am talking about is communication and creating a set of environments to be recognised and rewarded.” Acheson says. “It is a human resources concept but it’s also important for good people leadership.”

Flexibility, IBISWorld founder and chairman, Phil Ruthven, observes is something that employees are now starting to demand and take for granted.

Pointing to research the business information company recently conducted on the changing nature of work in Australia, Ruthven said part-time work now accounted for 28 per cent of the workforce while in America part-time work was just 10 per cent.

Rather than being something forced on employees by employers, part time work was something which was becoming increasingly attractive for workers with young families or other commitments.

“Now, there are a lot of people in part time work who would like full time work, but there are a hell of a lot of people in fulltime work who would rather be in part-timework,” he said.

Working from home, a phenomenon familiar to many Australian organisations, is also growing in demand from employees seeking more flexibility to better meet their work-life balance desires.

According to Ruthven, working from home is now done by one in eight of the 11.5 million Australian workers, but this is not necessarily fulltime work from home, as people still want to be collegiate and have workmates.

Hand-in-hand with working from home is the changing workplace practice of measuring employees by their outputs, not by inputs such as the number of hours they spend in the office.

“Any employer who asks you to turn up at 9am and leave at 5.30pm, and take two weeks off over Christmas is really working on inputs and not outputs, but that is what we have grown up with,” Ruthven says.

“The Net Generation is the most rebellious generation in history when it comes to moving away from being paid for inputs to outputs and that is putting a lot of managers offside.”

As such, managers could do well to judging work performance based on outputs if they want to both attract and retain Gen-Y staff in particular.

It’s something that has resonance for Dell’s Australia and New Zealand managing director, Joe Kremer. While being a growing company in itself makes attracting staff that much easier — Dell Australia has hired about 60 people last quarter and intends to do the same in the first quarter of 2012 — the company has gone through something of a cultural change in its attitude to work.

The company now classifies jobs after consulting with the individual to see if they want to work from home, or be tagged to an office and work part of the time from home. “We have got far more open-minded, and have policies on working from home,” Kremer says. “We are creating an environment where people can work how they want.

“Some people need to come in, and some people — like sales — we would prefer that they are out. There is a lot of flexibility and in terms of tools and processes we are getting much better at supporting them if they are remote.”

Tip Three: Social Media
In the last couple of years social media sites such as LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter have come to the fore as tools to both attract and retain staff.

When it comes to attracting staff, Australia’s top telco, Telstra, social media is firmly on its list of strategies. Employment brand manager, Brie Macklin, says this is because social media allows the company what the organisation and its culture are like with potential employees.

“You can’t get [corporate culture] from a job ad, so [social media] humanises Telstra and gives us a face and a name,” she says. “It’s giving us an ability to do recruitment that we didn’t have before.”

The company also asks people to refer it via social media and posts to job boards as well as creating Google ads.

“A big part of our retail call centre is made up students and a lot of those people are heavy users of Facebook so that’s a great channel for us,” Macklin says.

Telstra also has a job section on its Facebook page so people can apply for jobs without having to leave the site and uses LinkedIn to attract more mature hires for its professional roles.

Internally the company operates a social media policy whereby employees go through a training module learning how to be responsible using social media. There are both official and unofficial platforms within Telstra such as an exchange blog and Yammer.

“We’re using it to collaborate with different parts of the organisation, to solve problems,” Macklin says. “I’ve posted a few questions [on Yammer] and the amount of responses I get from people reaching out to help who I’ve never met before is incredible.”

On the staff retention side, Peoplebank’s Acheson says there has been a seachange in attitudes to social networking in the workplace and during work hours. For example, some larger companies now have breakout areas with PCs dedicated to allowing people to access social networking sites during their lunch hours.

“There is a greater tolerance towards using social media on mobile devices although those things can be time consuming if allowed to go unchecked,” Acheson cautions.

“There is a trust based environment emerging around reasonable usage been applied.”

Dell’s Kremer adds that it’s important not to forget the strength of informal social networks. The company has also found during the last six months of strong recruitment that its own staff are acting as walking advertisements and recruiters for the company, spreading the word of working conditions at the company among friends in the industry.

“One person joins from company A and says ‘wow this is great’ then three more join then six more join – that is what is happening,” he says. “Our internal bonuses for referring someone are at an all-time high and we are happy to pay those.”

Dell also has a formal hiring process which Kremer calls a “hiring profile.”

“When you hire for sales person we list all the skills they are supposed to have, and often it involves calling executives at the customers of where they are before they come to Dell,” he says.

Often the hiring process is taking someone who is good and finding out who their friends are. If they are happy, then they are a better person to attract talent than we are.”

Tip Four: Training and Professional Development
If your organisational budget doesn’t support a bidding war for staff salaries and work culture won’t support the flexibility and rewards you want to offer, then on-the-job training and education could be the clincher.

For one, sending staff to an overseas office can be pretty attractive for those who enjoy travelling and want the experience of working in a foreign country, says Candle’s Trevor. Working in other countries for short periods of time could also provide the bonus of lower tax rates.

“Providing training is definitely helpful for both attracting and retaining staff,” she says. “Firstly it shows the company is interested in the development of their employees and secondly the company will more often than not get loyalty from this employee,” she says.

As IT is constantly changing, having training provided in new technologies is also quite enticing to employees as well as the organisation.

“A candidate given an option of two similar roles where one company offers training and one does not makes the company offering the training more attractive,” Trevor says.

In addition, good business skills are highly regarded in the IT industry, so helping a prospective employee with their tuition for an MBA can help attract more senior candidates.

Though, for most people, learning and development opportunities are foremost considerations in the decision to take on a particular role, says Peoplebank’s Acheson.

“This is especially the case in the IT sector, where the rate at which new technologies appear means that that people will be learning throughout much of their professional life,” he says.

The type of training will also be different at various career stages: for example, specific IT skills training for early-career IT workers; leadership and team development-type skills for middle management and, for senior staff, broader learning about how IT underpins the business, delivers a return on investment and links to a company’s overall strategy.

“In short, regardless of whether it’s formal or on-the-job training, local or overseas, the opportunity for learning and development is a major factor in attracting and retailing skilled staff,” he says.

While Acheson acknowledges that an MBA is a good qualification, his recommendation for IT managers is a Masters of Information Technology or similar degree.

“An MBA is an extremely useful qualification that can broaden your horizons and open new doors but may not be useful in your current day to day role,” he says.

“Peoplebank’s experience is that graduates rank the Masters in Information Technology highly for information that’s immediately useful.”

Junior IT staff should look at Cisco accreditation as this was highly regarded in the marketplace. However, he warned that Cisco training is based around prior experience.

Turning to training, he says this is an important part of the overall benefits package which includes interesting work, a good management team and an appropriate remuneration package.

“The stronger the training path, the better the overall offer will work to attract and retain skilled ICT workers,” he says. IT leaders, particularly in public sector organisations where salaries may not be as competitive, are enticing talented IT workers to their companies with training and professional development opportunities according to Gartner executive partner, Marcus Darbyshire.

“Gen Y candidates in particular are demanding to know at job interviews, ‘How will you invest in my professional learning?'”, he says. “Professional development opportunities are a key feature IT leaders use to market roles to candidates, along with work/life balance, modern technology platforms and a relaxed working environment.”

According to Gartner research from 2011, career growth along with learning and development are the top reasons for IT staff to stay with their company.

“A recent discussion with IT leaders highlighted that many organisations budget around $1500 or 5 to 10 days each year for formal training and professional development,” Darbyshire says.

However, this amount was doubled for high performers who also received fast-tracking to internal leadership development courses. He adds that many IT leaders also provide on the job training as a cost effective way to retain staff through opening up new career opportunities.

A foundational goal of development for leaders is to expand their effective working styles — in other words, to become familiar with the unknown.

“It’s important that IT leaders continually stretch beyond their comfort zones, and also push their teams to do so,” Darbyshire says. “For example, build their understanding of different business cultures by spending two weeks working at a business unit, customer or supplier in a different country, like China, Brazil or India.”

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