Panel wrestles IT's hire and retain problem

A panel of IT leaders wrestled with the two-headed monster of hiring, then retaining IT workers, and they ended up calling for a shift in fundamental human resources management techniques to help change the internal cultures of companies.

"Turnover happens. We just have to get over it," said Margaret Schweer, human resources director at Kraft Foods in the US. She was a member of a panel that discussed the thorny issue of the hiring war between the "dots" and the "nots" on the final day of the recent Computerworld Premier 100 IT Leaders Conference in California.

"The job satisfaction paradigm has dramatically changed in recent years," Schweer said. She said she believes that an individual manager might only have influence over 20 per cent of the variables that affect whether a person stays or leaves an IT job for a dotcom or some other company. Kraft's IT turnover is about 5 per cent to 7 per cent annually, she noted.

Quite often, workers will approach a boss and say, "I'm doing OK in my job, but by the way, I'm leaving", Schweer said, adding that as a result, a corporate change in employment practices is needed.

To that end, the panellists identified a raft of retention and hiring strategies, from offering competitive pay to giving employees $5000 bonuses for referring a friend who is later hired. But the emphasis was on comprehensive approaches rather than gimmicks, with particular attention given to promoting a work culture that attracts and keeps workers.

One high-level management change that can promote retention and result in completed projects is creating teams to manage projects and giving the team members a group bonus for reaching goals at different stages, said David Foote, a managing partner at hiring consultancy Foote Partners.

A team bonus could amount to as much as 40 per cent of workers' salaries, Foote said. Team members should also be paid an individual bonus of up to 15 per cent for meeting certain objectives as part of the team, and there should be an immediate increase of 5 per cent in the base salaries of employees who agree to join project management teams, he added.

IT managers should be careful to give the first team they set up a project that can't fail and is relatively small in scope, Foote suggested. He also recommended that companies be discreet and avoid broadcasting the existence of the team until it shows signs of success.

"The highest rates of retention are generated by a positive team experience," Foote said. Yet, team approaches are "absolutely overlooked" by many IT managers as a means of keeping workers in the fold, he noted.

The panellists discussed what individual companies can do internally to retain and motivate workers, but they also urged IT managers to get involved with educational institutions in order to help create a larger pool of technology workers.

Fran Quittel, a US Computerworld columnist and IT recruiter, said technology managers need to focus on making the recruiting process fun for applicants and on giving them feedback so they won't lose interest.

For example, Quittel said, Cisco Systems pairs applicants with mentors inside the company who guide them through the hiring process - a process that's mentioned up front on Cisco's Web site. But many companies overlook the first impressions they give to potential new hires, she added.

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