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A Few Good Men and Women

A Few Good Men and Women

Finding and retaining good staff is, I believe, the number one challenge for IT executives. While life is being made difficult at the moment by a shortage of trained juniors entering the career pipeline, the most serious problem is a shortage of skilled, qualified people. There is a shortage of folks with skills in areas such as computer networking, enterprise resource planning, client/server, the Internet, project management and data administration.

Unfortunately, as we move into the next century the pent-up demand caused by new electronic commerce projects will only add to the staffing dilemmas facing many IT executives.

IDC Australia figures give an average IT staff turnover rate of around 13 per cent. If that's the average, then you can imagine the situation that some companies must be in. Our situation echoes that in the US, where a recent CIO survey of 316 big companies showed average IS staff turnover of 14.5 per cent.

Some US companies have been driven to emulate major league football teams, and offer signing bonuses to attract new IT employees!In an earlier CIO column, (September 1997), I suggested that IT executives should partner with their human resources (HR) counterparts to address the problem. One reader wrote to me to point out that this was unrealistic given the attitudes of the HR people he knew. Well, perhaps the idea was a bit naive, but it seems clear to me that traditional solutions to staffing are proving inadequate.

For instance, many of the IT executives to whom I've spoken are quite dissatisfied with headhunters. One complained to me of system analyst candidates brought to him who could hardly communicate in English. Obviously they were poorly screened by recruitment agencies. Meanwhile, advertising positions in the papers, in the traditional manner, is a very hit and miss affair.

I believe that a better solution is to take the initiative and network. Just as personal networking is more effective for job seekers than answering want ads, so it is too for employers, particularly for finding the top IS people. One of the most promising ideas that I've come across is to encourage employee referrals. Think about it: even if you paid employees a bonus of up to $5000 for hired referrals, you'd still have a bargain when you consider what other methods cost. One US firm now gets one in three new hires this way.

There are other creative ways to find staff. Create a small inhouse recruiting agency (this can halve the cost per hire, says US experience). Set up a positions-open page on your company Web site. To attract junior staff, start an entry level recruitment program at your local universities, and send senior staff along to address the students. Try an IS intern program.

Since it is cheaper to retain staff than find new staff - just as it is with customers! - you need to take better care of the people you've got. Review IS salaries frequently. Consider project-related bonuses and incentives. Ensure your training is competitive. If you can, improve the physical working environment, consider flexitime arrangements, offer telecommuting options, or institute sabbaticals for people who stay around. If you're able to, then offer childcare facilities, or share purchase programs.

Ultimately, we need to prepare for a world in which IS organisations have a core cadre of elite people, focused on integration and on advising business units, and where they contract out for whatever other technology services they need.

As we move into a knowledge economy, the abilities of this core set of people will be an important part of the intellectual capital of your organisation, and it will be worth persuading them to stick with you.

Steve Ireland is publisher of ComputerWorld newspaper

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