Attracting and Retaining Tech Workers

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OVERVIEW [top]

The availability of tech workers improved when so many dot-coms bombed, but it's still not easy for a small, relatively unknown company to find and attract the best.

Given that you offer adequate compensation and benefits, what else can you do to fill your engineer, technician, computer programmer, systems analyst, and e-commerce database manager needs?

In this Quick-Read you will find:

  • Strategies for attracting those quirky, qualified, high-tech employees
  • Strategies for keeping high-tech employees

SOLUTION [top]

Attracting, hiring and retaining the best high-tech workers requires a strategic approach, one that includes internal organization and an alignment of mission, values and leadership. It is not like hiring generic staff members. These people are unique, and they often can find work somewhere else in heartbeat.

If you haven't already done so, analyze your business plan to determine just when you'll need what tech skills over the next few years. Get your needs scheduled, and you'll be able to hire confidently, knowing you aren't paying for more or less talent than necessary. A plan showing when you'll need what kind of new staff support is especially helpful when unsolicited resumes from talented tech workers arrive in the mail.

Finding and hiring good workers

In spite of their stereotype, tech workers come in all shapes and sizes. There are middle-aged suits as well as geeks and teeny boppers who love the tech life. There are hirable people out there who will fit into your culture. You just have to look in the right places and offer the right enticements.

Since large companies are willing to pay premiums to lure good tech workers, to compete, you may have to pay tech workers more than you pay some other professional workers. Salary isn't everything, but if you're too far below average, good prospects won't even look your way.

Don't reject mid-career applicants because they lack training in a currently popular programming language. A good programmer can become proficient in a new language in just a couple of weeks. Why then, should you pay a $10,000-to-$30,000 annual-salary premium for an inexperienced worker who just happens to have completed a college course in whatever language is hot at the moment?

If you have half-year or year-long closed-end projects, or if you need support for existing tech staff, consider hiring interns. Part-time school year and full-time summer internships don't just provide cheap labor; they provide an opportunity for potential future employees to bond with your company. If you don't have a local college or high school with likely candidates, check with colleges further away for opportunities to recruit student interns who will return home to your area for the summer. Let the academic contacts you establish know what kinds of full-time talent you're seeking too, and they are likely to refer graduating hot prospects to you.

Encourage your present tech employees to participate in relevant blogs or listservs, or to join an internet bulletin board on a subject that is frequented by techies. This can land you some prospects, as well.

Consider contracting out your tech work. Is there an appropriate agency in your area? Are there independent contractors with the skills you need? But be careful that you don't outsource critical operations to the extent that a contractor failure would put your business at risk.

Retaining good workers

A retained good tech worker is more valuable than a replacement, because:

  • the retained worker already has expertise and experience getting work done in your special situation
  • recruiting, hiring, and training are expensive
  • work doesn't get done when you're between workers.

So talk to your tech workers, and find out what perquisites and job features would make them less likely to roam. What do they need from you? What kinds of support, freedom and room for growth do their positions offer? If you want ideas for specific perks to discuss, browse the job ads at Web sites with lots of tech offerings, like Dice.com."

Make sure your tech workers are assigned work that provides the satisfaction of meeting new challenges and making significant contributions to your operations. A management assignment most techies would relish is finding ways to outsource or automate their routine tasks so they have more time to accomplish more challenging work for you. Being stuck maintaining existing systems is a major cause of job dissatisfaction and departure.

Keep your techies' professional lives interesting by providing them with training opportunities. They'll feel appreciated and appreciate the opportunity. They'll be more valuable to you. The joke is old but true: What's worse than going to the expense of training an employee, just to lose him to the new job opportunity the training makes possible? Not training him, and having him stay.

Watch for opportunities to publicly recognize the contributions your tech workers make to the success of your operations both individually and as a group. It's all too easy to praise and reward the salesperson who gets a big new contract and the operations team that breaks production records, leaving the less visible vital contributions of the support staff out of the limelight. Public recognition of their value improves motivation and provides strong incentive for tech workers to stay.

Compensatory time off is a job feature especially attractive to tech workers who expect to work long intense hours to meet project deadlines.

REAL-LIFE EXAMPLE [top]

P.B. Systems, an international E-Commerce company, had a staff of 26 people. Two years later, 90 people work in offices in California, Utah, Oregon and India. The company plans to grow to 140 by the three-year mark.

"We don't care if the individuals we hire know the system. We look for a good attitude and disposition and a desire to work for a company of our size," said Patrick Bernards, director of business development.

P.B. Systems provides a workplace climate that fosters employee growth through educational opportunities and a variety of creative work that allows for exploration rather than repetition. They offer a competitive salary and benefits, but no stock options unlike many of their publicly-held competitors provide.

Due to the intangible perks, though, P.B. Systems' turnover rate is at 6 percent in an industry where 14.5 % to 20 % is the norm.

"We share our mission and we have people that buy into that mission. We are going to grow, but we are going to grow with the right people. If you spend a lot of time at the front end finding the right person, you will have a much better employee with much fewer costs."

DO IT [top]

  1. Check with high schools and appropriate college departments to see if they have internship programs that could solve some of your problems. Ask about teachers and instructors with talents you can use who may be looking for work when school is out.

  2. Tell clients, business associates, friends and employees exactly what tech talen t you're looking for. Everyone has a network of acquaintances that could lead to the applicant you want. Be sure when you hire anyone, technical or not, as a result of an employee referral, the employee who brought in the new person scores points for it at performance review time. Consider offering a pay bonus for successful recruitment.

  3. Confirm that your compensation is competitive. Check the salary statistics for your region at the U.S. Department of Labor's "National Compensation Survey" Web site.

  4. Be sure your openings are listed on your Web site. Anyone who visits your Web site is there because of interest in your company or its products, and likely to be more interested in working for you than are random readers of job ads.

  5. Widen your pool of potential job applicants by making skills and knowledge that can be picked up on the job "desired" not "required" in your ads and job descriptions. Offering to pay for training and certification will attract still more applicants.

  6. If you need to hire more than one new tech worker, let any good interviewees who express interest in working for you know, so they can recruit people they'd like to work with. If you can offer jobs to teammates who like each other and know they work together well based on their past experiences, they'll have more incentive to join you and to stay.

  7. Make an offer as soon as you know which applicant you want. Good techs get lots of interview opportunities, and if you pause, you'll risk blending into the crowd so your most attractive features will be forgotten.

  8. If valuable tech workers quit your operation to go elsewhere, don't just find out why in the exit interview; start re-recruiting them, and make arrangements to stay in touch. Keep them on newsletter mailing lists and invite them to company social events. Workers who change employers often become disillusioned with their new jobs, and are happy to come back.

  9. When new hires start work, motivate them by making sure they are welcomed and integrated into the team immediately. Let everyone including managers know that they'll score points at assessment time if they've gotten to know new team members and invited them to get involved in appropriate current projects.

RESOURCES [top]

Books

Hiring the Best Knowledge Workers, Techies & Nerds: The Secrets & Science of Hiring Technical People, by Johanna Rothman. (Dorset House, 2004).

These next two books provide guidance for finding and hiring all kinds of workers, not just techies:

45 Effective Ways for Hiring Smart!: How to Predict Winners and Losers in the Incredibly Expensive People-Reading Game," Pierre Mornell. (Ten Speed, 2003).

Employee Recruitment and Retention Handbook, by Diane Arthur. (AMACOM, 2001). Provides guidance for finding and hiring all kinds of workers, not just techies.


Internet Sites

Hiring technical people. Johanna Rothman, 2006.

Hiring Technical People. Johanna Rothman. Human Capital Institute, 2005-2006.

"How To: Hiring Technical Staff," by Hailey Lynne McKeefry. Channel Insider (May 12, 2005).

"More for the Money," by Lee Copeland. Computerworld (September 3, 2001): 26-33. See related items on Computerworld's "Knowledge Center: Careers: Hiring/Recruiting" page.

"Recruiting Secrets of the Smartest Companies Around," by Christopher Caggiano. Inc. (October 1998): 30-32+.

"Debunking the Myth of a Desperate Software Labor Shortage," by Norman Matloff. University of California at Davis, 1998, 2002.

Article Contributors

Writers: Polly Campbell and Richard Blue

Patrick Bernards of P.B. Systems was interviewed for this article.

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