Why Staffers Stay

BOSTON (05/23/2000) - PalmPilots and wine and food pairings. This odd couple is a key reason why Alan Atkinson, manager of information technology at Franciscan Estates, a winery in Rutherford, California, is a satisfied IT professional.

The PalmPilots, used in the vineyard to collect harvest data, represent Atkinson's employer's willingness to explore new technology. The wine and food pairing dinners - for which the winery's chef helps create and prepare menus - are indicative of Franciscan Estates' creative rewards for its employees.

"Money only goes so far," says Atkinson. He's echoed by other IT professionals, who say it takes a combination of factors for them to ignore a headhunter's calls.

Regular training and the opportunity to work with the latest technology top the list. In fact, even professionals with serious complaints about their job situations say access to training and technology are reasons why they're staying put for now.

"I get to play with the best toys in town," says a project manager at an international IT services firm. "Where else am I going to troubleshoot a server alongside the guy who developed it?"

Professionals say they especially appreciate training in technologies their companies may not be using yet, because it makes them feel that they're keeping their skills current. The project manager says he asks for and receives virtually any training he wants, whether it's applicable to current projects or not - a benefit that, for now, is keeping him with his employer, although he's unhappy with other work onditions.

As for technology itself, when IT folks say they want to work with leading-edge technology, they mean Web applications, Windows 2000, the latest Cisco routers, alpha and beta software and hardware products from leading vendors and more.

Obviously, not every company will be able to buy every new toy on the market.

That's why management also plays a critical role in keeping employees satisfied, say IT workers. Their message is simple: We stay when you treat us as trusted professionals.

"This company hires good people and lets them be creative," says a systems integrator at a firm doing work for the U.S. Air Force. He says many staffers have been there for five to 10 years, in part because they're given interesting projects and allowed to come up with their own solutions to problems.

Others say it means a lot to them when high-ranking users and clients recognize their contributions. "Our area has a direct impact on the business, and if our products do well, it gets back to us," says a senior programmer/analyst at a Midwest insurance firm.

Bucks Stop Here

Compliments aren't enough, though. Even satisfied workers say they'd like to see more of their earnings tied to performance: More than half the respondents to Computerworld's recent Annual Job Satisfaction Survey said they're somewhat to very dissatisfied with the connection between their performance and their pay, as well as with the frequency and amounts of bonuses.

"It'd be nice if more of our project rollouts had a direct link to our paychecks," says Atkinson. He notes that annual performance reviews often mean there's a long gap between a project's completion date and an employee's reward for it.

In any case, many IT professionals say they can always earn more money somewhere else. But they stay where they are in part because their companies have found other ways to take care of them, they say.

Good benefits packages, especially health care, are important. Perks such as the opportunity to telecommute, flextime, casual dress policies, free lunches, ergonomically correct office furniture, staff outings and other soft benefits also add to job satisfaction, they say.

IT employees at Franciscan Estates get to work in Napa Valley, receive two bottles of wine per month and can participate in fishing derbies in well-stocked reservoirs in the valley, among other activities, Atkinson says.

Also, management encourages them to network with their peers at other wineries, and it's routine at the end of IT projects for staff to be given some downtime as compensation.

"These are refreshing policies," says Atkinson, who notes that they also help him hold on to employees, even when he can't match hot Northern California salaries.

Accommodating the vagaries of modern life also wins employers big points. The systems integrator says his company made up the difference in an Army reservist's salary when she was mobilized for duty in Kosovo. And the senior project manager was able to take several days off without a problem when his child was injured recently.

Less-tangible factors also keep professionals at their current jobs. "I'm worth more than I'm paid, but I have quality-of-life issues to consider," says Brian Bishop, a senior business systems analyst at First Nationwide Mortgage Corp. in Frederick, Maryland. Having the opportunity to live in a small town with no rush hour is a big factor in his job satisfaction, he says.

IT professionals also say they stay when they know the work they're doing is important, either to internal users or to society at large. "People stay here because they know their opinions are valued and that their contribution to the company matters," says a production application systems manager at an insurance firm in Northern California.

"It helps you stay interested, knowing you're doing more than programming another software module," says a telecommunications manager in San Francisco whose firm has helped bring programming jobs to small rural areas in the U.S.

Good working relationships within an IT department also create more satisfaction, say IT employees. "If I didn't like the group of people I work with, I'd move on," says Diane Foote, a senior Unix administrator at Conexant Systems Inc. in Newport Beach, California.

In short, there's no easily mapped formula for creating IT job satisfaction and no guarantee that workers will stay. Yet as the Job Satisfaction Survey shows, if companies don't at least try to keep IT employees happy, many of them will almost certainly go.

Watson is a freelance writer in Chicago.

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