To keep your best IT people, keep them learning

Whenever I talk about the shortage of information technology professionals, the most common question I get in response - besides "Where do I find good people?" - is "How do I keep good people?"

This is more than a rhetorical question. With the war for talent heating up and top-notch IT vendors raising the bar on retention programs, attrition will become a serious problem for average IT shops unless they work proactively to prevent it. As it is, 60 per cent of the 600,000 to 700,000 job openings this year in the US for IT professionals will be the result of employees changing jobs. This game of musical chairs costs money. Typical IT turnover is between 15 per cent and 25 per cent, but good companies can get their numbers down below 15 per cent. However, it's not easy, and it won't happen by accident.

Believe it or not, money isn't the most important element in retaining good employees. Oh, salaries can't be too out of whack, but employee satisfaction depends on a number of factors, including career development, recognition in the job at hand and the social atmosphere or lifestyle benefits that come with the job.

In fact, the companies with leading-edge retention programs address all these areas. According to Michael Boyd, IDC's guru on resourcing strategies, program elements can include the following: ongoing education and training; a mix of job assignments; the organisation of small groups and teams; peer group and mentoring programs; organised career counselling; flexitime and other lifestyle benefits such as on-site day care, sponsored charity work, and fitness clubs; internal marketing and communication with employees.

My advice to the average IT shop: pay attention to the big professional services companies, since their success in retaining employees goes right to the bottom line. All have major employee-retention programs in place.

Ernst & Young, for instance, was able to cut turnover from 24 per cent to 16 per cent in one year by focusing on several key areas including flexible work arrangements, concierge and family services, company-wide orientation programs and employee surveys.

But perhaps the most attention was paid to establishing systems that support employee career development. Each employee has a performance counsellor, participates in peer and affinity groups and develops a learning map that's updated via the Web and tailored to the competencies required for the employee's career track. The company's performance measurement system has been revamped to measure an employee's contributions to clients, the company and himself.

With baby boomers heading for retirement and post-baby boomers swelling the workforce, I believe that what it takes to retain good employees will change. My bet is that the most important single tool for retaining employees, even more so than lifestyle benefits, will be training. Young employees have all heard how often they're likely to change careers in the next 40 years, and they understand that without continual learning, their skills will atrophy.

OK, but how can you keep freshly trained employees from jumping ship once they're fully trained? Simple: just keep the education coming. It will become addictive. With luck, good employees will spend 40 years in your company while they prepare for their next jobs.

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