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Today's tech challenge: keeping technology talent

Posted online

by Jeffrey J. Fuller

for the Business Journal

A little two-digit glitch, never considered when original computer codes were written in the 1960s, has created a looming catastrophe. Specifically, the odometers in most of the planet's mainframe computers must be modified by the turn of the century, lest the world's businesses discover at 12:01 a.m. Jan. 1, 2000, that virtually all computer-driven operations in their offices have ceased to function.

Known as the year 2000 problem, this menace approaches because most mainframes still rely on a computer code that can only distinguish years in a two-digit field. And how are computers to know that "00" means 2000 instead of 1900?

For information systems/information technology (IS/IT) professionals, who find themselves in a monumental seller's market, the problem creates tremendous job opportunities. Entire consulting firms are springing up to play year 2000 doctor, and with a multi-million dollar price tag and an estimated three-year fix-it period for most Fortune 1000 firms companies that aren't working on the issue now will become desperate next year.

For companies that hire IS/IT personnel and virtually every sizable organization has IS/IT people on its payroll the year 2000 problem is only one in a series of challenges in attracting and retaining qualified technology pros. In 1995, there weren't enough C++ programmers in the world to meet business needs. In 1985, the shortage was AS400 programmers, and in 1975, assembler programmers were scarce. Today, there's a shortage of experts in LAN/WAN/WEB telecommunication and networking; online database design, access and management; and client-server/multi-tier architecture.

So what's an employer to do? The most obvious answer is to pay the market rate for talent. Still, this is not an absolute defense, nor is it a long-term solution, as firms will simply drive up the price of IS/IT talent. A bidding war for relevant talent is likely; some say it has already begun. Under virtually every scenario, IS/IT payroll costs will likely surge over the next couple of years.

Even so, the lure of a fat paycheck won't be all that's required to find and keep the best IS/IT professionals. In fact, it's only the ticket to the game. The best answer is to have business-driven, strategically appropriate human resource management practices in place. This includes comprehensive performance, rewards and general HR practices that are tailored to the special needs and character of the IS/IT professional, but that are also aligned with business strategy and coordinated with broader HR strategies. This more holistic approach will help you attract, motivate, develop, reward and retain the kinds of IS/IT professionals your company needs in order to thrive.

Finding and keeping IS/IT staff depends on many significant factors. Since pay is only a partial answer, following are some other critical areas to consider:

The Work. A challenging project spawns intense focus and commitment, albeit short-term. When the project ends, there may be a temptation for the IS/IT staffer to think, "That was a great project, but now it's done, and so am I." How to keep the technology wizard from going in search of the e-mail address of the last recruiter who called? Make sure the next project is lined up, that the IS/IT staffer's skill sets will contribute to its successful completion and that he or she understands and is enthusiastic about the project's potential.

Co-workers. Colleagues play a critical role in job satisfaction. If the co-worker in the next cubicle isn't hitting to win, the better technology players are likely to go where peers have higher batting averages. Talent attracts talent.

Appropriate Supervision. IS/IT magicians are often non-standard people doing non-standard jobs. That doesn't mean they can, or should, go for days on end without access to capable supervisors who are available and able to help make the magic happen.

Communication. Employees want to feel in the loop, and your IS/IT employees are no exception. Make sure they know the rules of the road so they can feel connected and help drive the success of your business.

Performance Practices. The technology professional's credentials and experience are standard factors in determining compensation. But performance and corresponding compensation ought also to be linked to the size and complexity of the worker's responsibilities, and how effectively that person meets position and project criteria.

Reward Practices. Rewards come in many styles. IS/IT personnel, like other employees, feel valued when they're rewarded with recognition, incentive pay for meeting interim project goals and bonuses for achieving final project results. The more rewards that can be tailored to the specific needs and character of each IS/IT employee, the more effective the company will be in retaining qualified professionals.

Competitive Benefits. It may be that the standard benefits pension plans, 401(k)s and so forth don't hold much appeal for technology types in your firm. If Company X across town gives every exempt employee an office with a door, and your company puts all the IS/IT folks in one big room, there may be a link to your turnover rate. The benefits and perks that hold real value for your technology staffers may lie where you wouldn't normally look for them.

Demand for specific technology skill sets isn't likely to diminish in the foreseeable future, and companies will continue the rush to entice the finest technology players aboard. Having the right human resources programs and practices in place helps companies attract and retain top IS/IT professionals, and helps drive organizational performance by aligning human talent with the business' strategic goals.

(Jeffrey J. Fuller is a principal in the performance and rewards consulting practice in the Kansas City office of William M. Mercer Inc.)


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