Finding reliable technical talent has traditionally been one of the toughest tasks that IT solution providers face. That's why many successful companies are focused as much on retention as on recruiting.
"It's hard to keep good engineering talent and it's really hard to find sales talent," said Jane Cage, COO at Heartland Technology Solutions, an IT services company in Joplin, Mo. "The people that are willing to make the greater efforts are the ones that we want to keep."
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Although the U.S. unemployment rate has held steady at 8.3% for most of 2012, the information technology sector has managed to buck the trend. Of the 49,000 jobs that were added in professional and business services in July 2012, 13,300 were related to information technology design, technical consulting and other customer services areas, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Companies who are worried about IT talent retention should note that currently, the most difficult positions to fill are Java developers, mobile application programmers and those with .NET skills, according to July 2012 data from Dice.com, a resource for technical recruiting. But there are plenty of positions open across other skill sets, such as in security, collaboration tools and network integration. At the end of the month, there were close to 85,000 available tech jobs, the company estimated.
Those numbers surprised few managers.
"It's a struggle to attract and keep good talent. You are competing against clients, vendors and other business partners," said Dave Casey, chief executive of Westron Communications, an integrator in Frisco, Texas.
Historical data suggests that a good technical employee will stay with an IT services firm from three to five years, so how can you convince them to stay longer? Here are three policies that IT solution providers interested in retaining IT talent should consider.
1. Give senior engineers a chance to become mentors. By creating specialty teams, solution providers can ensure a higher degree of cross-functional training and provide growth opportunities for senior employees, Cage said.
Heartland Technology Solutions, which has about 80 active employees (50 of which have been there longer than five years), is moving toward this structure in order to get deeper with the technical disciplines that better support its growth objectives.
This gives an opportunity for some employees to become managers, offering more opportunity for growth from within, Cage said. What's more, it also provides the company with a large set of bench talent in certain disciplines to call on when a new opportunity emerges.
"Everyone has a certification path that considers what we need from a specialty and geographic point of view, what they need for career development purposes, and what is desirable for the future," she said.
Jenaly Technology Group is likewise encouraging engineers with more tenure to share some of their real-world experience and coach more junior employees through challenging client situations, said M.J. Shoer, president of the Portsmouth, N.H.-based managed service provider, which employs about 10 people.
"I make it a point to ask people what opportunities they are looking for and give them a chance to take a leadership role when it seems appropriate," Shoer said.
Creating teams helps engineers from becoming pigeonholed into certain projects, Casey said. Rather than stressing certain vendor certifications, Westron focuses on building deeper skills in specific disciplines, such as wireless networking, IP telephony and video.
"We are trying to get people who are cross-trained," he said.
2. Reinforce corporate culture. This starts with hiring, even if someone doesn't have all the credentials you need right away.
"We are always looking for people. You really don't want to start [looking] when you need someone," Casey said. "If the right person comes along, you will create the position."
Once someone is on board, don't overlook the importance of making sure they understand the core values of your company, because many engineers will spend a lot of their time off-site with clients.
Westron Communications, which has about 15 employees, does this by regularly soliciting feedback about new strategies, technologies and ideas from everyone on the team. "It makes them feel like they are part of the decisions," said Casey.
Heartland Technology Solutions is also focused on developing a culture that encourages camaraderie among employees. One example is a policy that allows an employee to donate his or her personal days off to another person on the team. The company has also used the same strategy to encourage volunteering in the local community.
3. Structure compensation to reinforce ongoing training. Some solution providers offer some sort of bonus for earning certifications, while others make it mandatory according to the terms of the compensation.
Either way, it's important to be specific about which skills are valuable to the company.
Jenaly is testing the idea of creating a virtual certification library resource through its ConnectWise relationship, Shoer said. That way, the company's team doesn't have to work with different certification content providers. Right now, Jenaly is offering an incentive for continuous learning activities, and Shoer plans to require at least one course per quarter. He is including himself in that plan.
"It makes a good statement to the team about what I want to do and why," he said.
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