Panel Provides IT Hiring and Retention Tips

PALM DESERT, CALIF. (06/21/2000) - A panel of information technology leaders today wrestled with the two-headed monster of hiring and 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 Inc. in Northfield, Illinois. 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 Computerworld Premier 100 IT Leaders Conference here.

"(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% of the variables that affect whether a person stays or leaves an IT job for a dot-com or some other company. Kraft's IT turnover is about 5% to 7% 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 explained. As a result, a corporate change in employment practices is needed, she added.

To that end, the panelists identified a raft of retention and hiring strategies, from offering competitive pay to giving employees $5,000 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 LLC in New Canaan, Connecticut.

A team bonus could amount to as much as 40% of workers' salaries, Foote said.

Team members also should be paid an individual bonus of up to 15% for meeting certain objectives as part of the team, and there should be an immediate increase of 5% 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.

Robert Bruce, formerly the CIO at Allmerica Financial Corp. in Worcester, Massachusetts, said companies need a comprehensive set of bonuses and incentives that go beyond pay to retain workers. "If the pay is fair (compared with that of other companies), money becomes an irrelevant thing'' in determining job happiness, Bruce said.

One way Green Mountain Coffee Inc. keeps workers happy is by "passing the fun jobs around" so that no single IT worker is burdened by the more boring work, said Jim Prevo, CIO at the Waterbury, Vermont-based coffee roaster.

The panelists 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.

Irene Dec, vice president of international investments at Prudential Insurance Co. of America in Newark, New Jersey, previously worked in IT executive jobs at Prudential. She said she found it helpful to get in touch with local schools about the kinds of workers the company needed and the curriculum that would be most relevant. "You can influence education (programs) at high schools and colleges," Dec said.

Schweer said Kraft has set up internships and sabbaticals for faculty members at schools from which the company recruits potential employees, giving it a chance to influence the thinking of the teachers.

Fran Quittel, a 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 Inc. 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.

Much attention at the Premier 100 conference was paid to the people skills IT managers need to bring to all aspects of their jobs, in addition to technology competence. IT departments "must get the work done, but it is people who get the work done," Bruce said. "If you lose focus on why people come to work, you'll lose people."

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