To Have and to Hold

BOSTON (06/12/2000) - The wear and tear of flying between Illinois and Texas to help care for his ailing grandparents, their ranch and their lumber business finally got to Todd Purifoy. He decided to quit his job as enterprise e-mail administrator at Chicago-based International Truck and Engine Corp.

"I wanted to get back closer to family," Purifoy says. "I told the company that I'd hang around for a month or two or however long it took to train a new person, but that I'm going to have to leave."

But International Truck didn't want to let him go. He was too good at handling the company's worldwide Windows NT e-mail system. So Purifoy's manager packed up, flew to Dallas and scouted out a field office to which Purifoy could relocate.

"We gave him the opportunity to telecommute and continue to do his job from Texas," explains Art Data, CIO at International Truck.

Data undersells the move, however. Not only did the company devise the plan, he says, but it also paid for an Integrated Services Digital Network line to Purifoy's Dallas home. Purifoy, who had been at International Truck for about one year when this happened in 1998, says he was surprised and grateful. And now he's dog-loyal.

"There are plenty of opportunities to work [at other companies] in Dallas in my position," Purifoy says. "But none remotely interest me because of the things that International Truck has helped me do."

That's what you call a successful information technology retention program.

International Truck, which was called Navistar International Corp. until a name change in March, had an IT turnover rate of just 2.7 percent last year.

Furthermore, 78 percent of the 610-member staff at the company have been there at least five years.

The US$8.6 billion company is one of the best at retaining IT people. Data chalks it up to, among other things, flexible work policies and employee reward plans that let high-performing nonmanagers make more than their managers.

International Truck gets it. So do The Prudential Insurance Company of America, State Farm Insurance Cos., software maker SAS Institute Inc., bread maker The Earthgrains Co. and electronics manufacturer Hadco Corp. These firms tune into their employees' work/life preferences and create a menu of benefits, pay programs and extras that keep IT staff satisfaction high and turnover rates low.

The trick is for CIOs to think of their people as customers, at least to a certain degree, says Steve Brazile, CIO at Earthgrains in St. Louis.

"We know that everybody who works in our shop can get a job someplace else in town if they want to," Brazile says. Competitive pay and benefits are a given, but that kind of customer service mentality isn't.

Brazile says that as CIO, he tries to set a certain tone. "We want a clear mission and purpose," he says. "No crazy hours and unrealistic deadlines. We don't like yelling and screaming."

And what was the IT turnover at Earthgrains last year? Zero.

One innovative way Brazile keeps his 40 full-time IT professionals motivated is by offering them first dibs on projects that involve neat new technologies, such as Internet development.

"You get a lot of people with a lot of energy and they always want to work on new stuff," Brazile says. "You don't have set formulas [for who gets what plum assignment], but you try to make people happy."

Brazile says he also tries to keep personal tabs on his staff. He'll ask project managers about the hours team members work and whether they seem happy.

"We appreciate dedication, but they have lives and families," he says. "You keep your eye out for those things."

Salary Still Counts

Money is obviously important. No one wants to be paid less than what they think they're worth - or what they think they can get elsewhere.

"You have to have the compensation," says Bill Friel, CIO at Prudential in Roseland, New Jersey. Friel oversees 5,200 IT workers. Prudential gave average compensation increases - salary plus bonus - of 9 percent in IT last year. But Friel says that equally important is the chance for IT people to learn technology and soft skills such as management training and how to do a presentation.

"If you can continue that knowledge growth for each individual's portfolio, that is the key thing" to maintain high retention, he says.

Friel measures his success carefully. He compares the IT turnover at Prudential - 9 percent last year - with that of the industry in general and of the Northeast, where Prudential is located.

Thirty-six years in the business have also taught him to monitor another statistic: what his top performers (the top 20 percent of his staff) are doing.

These key IT staffers get special bonuses and management and technology training. But Friel also runs an annual strategy session with the CIOs from Prudential's business units to determine how best to use the top talent. "We find interesting, challenging assignments for these people with important projects and make sure they are using exciting new technologies," he says.

Intangibles At Work

As critical as salary and education are to keeping IT staff happy and productive, there's a less tangible factor as well: work culture. How do managers make their priorities known? How do people at work act? Do people pull together?

Book fairs, quarterly dinners, bake-offs and special-service-recognition breakfasts are typical at Hadco in Salem, New Hampshire. These events contribute to a happy and loyal IT staff and help create the family-style culture the company tries to promote.

When rains flooded out employees' families at Hadco's division in Owego, New York, two years ago, colleagues held potluck suppers and bake-offs to raise money for clothes and shelter.

Everyone seems to know everyone else. Many people have worked there for decades. "It's unusual for you to pass someone in the hall and not say, ‘hi.' In other companies I've been in, the norm is not to acknowledge them," says Fred Chaloux, CIO at Hadco.

"People feel like it's family," adds Lorraine Peterson, Hadco's corporate human resources manager.

Geography has worked for most of Computerworld's best IT retainers. State Farm, for example, is one of the largest employers in the Bloomington, Illinois, area - an affordable farm-belt region with a high quality of life. The company offers relatively high salaries and abundant training programs.

"It's not easy for Joe Blow with a family and [who] works in our IT shop to pick up and go to the other side of town to get a job with the same opportunity and pay," notes Todd Smith, a human resources manager for IT recruiting at State Farm.

This gives the company an obvious staffing edge as the top dog in the region.

But better pay and training are conscious efforts by State Farm to get and keep the best talent.

State Farm also seeks out people from other departments - and other vocations - for IT slots. They get technical training at a local university in a program cosponsored by State Farm. Terri Thompson, systems employment specialist at State Farm, says that in the IT department, "We've got a lawyer and school teachers. We've had a chiropractor and a banker."

The people at SAS Institute in Cary, North Carolina, like to think of themselves as a community and not simply co-workers. Mainly, that's because the company provides lots of lifestyle services at work for free or at greatly reduced costs.

There's health care by two doctors and eight nurse practitioners on-site, dry cleaning, car washing, a credit union and a farmer's market. And 700 kids who attend on-site child care make for a lively cafeteria come lunchtime.

Moreover, the company encourages employees to have a life outside of work.

"It's acceptable to go home at 4 p.m. for your kid's soccer game," says Jeff Chambers, director of human resources at SAS Institute. "You get hard-driving people who want to work all hours - they won't like it here. They'll be working all alone."

Chambers won't divulge the price tag for these extras. But according to a study of the company by the Harvard Business Review, SAS Institute saves more than $50 million per year by providing such perks. Most of the savings comes from not having to recruit and train new employees.

An absence of strict corporate hierarchy is also part of the mix. Jim Goodnight, SAS Institute's CEO, isn't big on formality. Most employees aren't more than four or five management levels from the CEO. "People ask him questions in the hall," Chambers says. "Goodnight will talk to anybody."

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