How top employers keep IT staffers happy

"In some form, our IT group has been around for 50 years," says Jean Delaney Nelson, vice president and CIO at Securian Financial Group. "And we've never laid off an employee."

In a fluid era marked by outsourcing and offshoring, those words are sure to grab the attention of IT professionals. And once Securian grabs, it hangs on. The financial services firm, which changed its name from Minnesota Life last year, boasts a 97.9 percent IT retention rate. Small wonder, then, that the 400-worker IT group ranks No. 13 on this year's Best Places IT organizations list.

Interviews with Best Places IT organizations uncover few secrets but much common ground where employee retention is concerned. The keys are careful hiring, a commitment to promoting from within, tireless training and -- perhaps most important -- challenging projects that offer workers the chance to handle hot technologies. Great benefits don't hurt, either.

Hiring and promoting

It's easy to tune out when top executives talk about all the effort they put into hiring the right people. But our research indicates that Best Places companies do more than talk. For example, Securian says 95 percent of its present IT staff members were entry-level hires. Coupled with the company's high retention rate, this stat proves that it promotes extensively from within.

Anna Sullivan has worked at Securian for 12 years. A senior systems analyst, she says the company is tireless when it comes to staying current on technology. "I bet I've taken 50 to 75 training courses here," Sullivan says.

Once you've got a sharp worker, one way to keep him is to let him start making decisions right away. That's a tip from San Diego-based wireless vendor Qualcomm, which ranks 23rd on this year's list.

"We push a lot of decision-making down in the organization, so people right out of school get involved," says Norm Fjeldheim, Qualcomm's senior vice president and CIO. As an example, he recalls how a technology team made up largely of junior staffers approached him in 2004 and suggested that virtualizing the company's servers would ease setup. In response, the CIO approved a US$150,000 evaluation of VMware virtualization products.

"We saw early success, so we kept expanding the program until we ultimately put it in production," Fjeldheim says. "Now, 50 percent of our data center is virtual. We've saved over US$3 million on hardware alone, and we can set up a server in 30 minutes." All because some young administrators were intrigued by virtualization's potential.

Hiring managers must also be careful not to underestimate the urge to build an empire when the larder is full. Securian's Delaney Nelson says this has been a key to her group's ability to avoid layoffs. "Some companies do huge staff-ups when the economy's strong," she says. "We don't. We'd rather move gradually." When Securian needs IT staffing but is unsure for how long, it uses consultants. By the time Delaney Nelson's team replaces a consultant with a full-timer, it's confident that the position will be needed in the long run.

Securian also encourages departments to borrow staffers from one another when one group is busy and another is slack. This is a reasonably trauma-free option, Sullivan says, because Securian uses a standard set of development tools. She says, "If I move to another group, I know they'll be using the same J2EE platform" that her group is using now to develop a business-to-business e-commerce Web site for the financial services department.

Training

Training and ongoing education are par for the course in Best Places IT groups. Interestingly, companies with standout IT retention rates don't boast of offering x hours of training per employee or y dollars for college courses.

Rather, their attitude is best summed up by W.W. Grainger's Timothy Ferrarell: "When we have a job to do and skills people need to learn, we're going to get employees the training they need," says Ferrarell, senior vice president of enterprise systems at the US$5.5 billion supplier of facilities maintenance products, which ranks No. 78. "We don't have a one-size-fits-all rule for training; it's based on company needs."

And because Grainger's business is "all about moving boxes and logistics," as Ferrarell puts it, the need for training is ceaseless. A few years back, Grainger dove into voice over IP by setting up a network that seamlessly transfers customer calls to any of the company's 400-plus branches.

More recently, Grainger threw the switch on a rollout of SAP's enterprise software that SAP executives called, according to Ferrarell, "one of the largest single-instance implementations ever to go live in one day." Naturally, a project of that magnitude requires extensive consulting, but, Ferrarell says, "our bias is to do these things ourselves as much as possible. We want people who understand the business to do the IT work."

Qualcomm's Fjeldheim echoes that sentiment: "When we use consultants, their job is part knowledge transfer." To that end, he says, "my goal is always to get the consultants out of here before a new system goes into production. It doesn't always happen that way, but it's always the goal."

Because 95 percent of its IT workers begin at the entry level, Securian is also committed to extensive training. In addition to using a corporate educator to learn soft skills such as leadership and communication, the IT organization actually has seven full-time people "who do nothing but train and develop IT associates," Delaney Nelson says. New hires spend their first three months in an entry-level application-development training program, and the minimal goal is two weeks of ongoing education per staffer per year.

IT groups with great retention records also feature a host of team-building programs and outings, from trips to Major League Baseball games at Qualcomm to visits by the famous Second City improvisational comedy troupe at Grainger. But what these companies truly provide is nectar to technologists: a challenge. "We're constantly putting in new technologies where there's a business reason to do so," Fjeldheim says. "IT people love that challenge -- they don't want to be stuck maintaining 30-year-old technologies."

Ulfelder is a freelance writer in Southboro, Mass.

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