Competing for IT Talent

By Deb Perelman  |  Posted 2007-07-20

Competing for IT Talent

By multiple accounts, the IT job market is at its healthiest point since the dot-com bust some six years ago.

Nearly 16 percent of CIOs said they intended to hire IT professionals during the first quarter of 2007, found a survey by Robert Half Technology released March 6, and a follow-up second-quarter survey found a net 12 percent hiring increase. The U.S. IT sector was rated the healthiest internationally in an EIU (Economist Intelligence Unit) report July 11, and a report released May 9 by the National Association of Computer Consultant Businesses found that IT employers had more jobs to fill than people to fill them.

In a tight and vigorously competitive labor market, many employers struggle to find and put to use recruitment tactics that will enable them to stay ahead of their competitors. Meanwhile, the brightest IT workers, especially those with the most sought-after skill sets, can afford to be picky about where they work, thus requiring extra courting by managers, who are often not trained in the brass tacks of recruiting. The solution, according to a Forrester Research report released July 10, is for CIOs to diversify their talent pool and brand their IT based on cultural differentiators.

"Every hand in the room pops up when I ask who is concerned about IT recruiting," said Samuel Bright, Forrester analyst and report author, in an interview with eWEEK. "But its often covered with issues that are just symptoms of the larger problems. For example, I get a lot of questions about salaries, and if you walk back a little bit, the question is not whether my compensation is out of line; its really that Im having trouble finding people."

On top of the difficulties recruiting and hiring within a tight labor market, additional factors further limit the depth and quantity of available IT professionals. In many ways, the field is still recovering from the dot-com bubbles burst in 2001, and the younger people who were not scared off from technology careers would prefer to work at a big-name brand such as Google or Yahoo rather than within enterprise IT, Bright said.

Meanwhile, CIOs are expressing increasing dissatisfaction with the quality of recruits they get in the door, from résumés loaded with empty buzzwords to people who are trained in technologies they have no chance of applying. In addition, CIOs in the Forrester report said they worried about pay scale imbalances (in which premiums are paid for specific, sought-after IT skills, and current employees become disgruntled at wide pay disparities) and were frustrated with the effectiveness of recruiting firms in finding midlevel talent and the burden of geographical limitations.

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"When we look at talent management, it tends to be very tactical, but not strategic," Bright said. "IT takes a whack-a-mole approach to recruiting, being reactive instead of proactive, frustrated that they can bring people in but cant make them stay. Until they figure out why, theyre just kicking a can down the road."

Karl Herleman, CIO at Miami Dade College, said he routinely has to compete with the private sector for IT talent.

"We are having a tough time filling positions due to a combination of improved conditions for IT workers and higher salary requests, which, as a college, we cant always offer [or] compete with private industry," said Herleman, who also is an eWEEK Corporate Partner. "Weve been looking very hard in our back yard, to our students, and are trying to use them in creative ways. But, of course, our pattern is we hire a part-time student, they do wonderful things for us, gain experience and move into the corporate world when they graduate. Since that, of course, is our mission, we plan for that turnover, but a few enjoy the intangibles we have and stay here at the college."

However, not all are finding the IT talent pool to be as competitive.

"We have not seen a tightened IT market except for specific programming languages," said an IT administrator who asked not to be named. "We have found the right people; it just took a little longer to fill the position. We have not changed our recruiting. We have used college co-op students who later have become full-time employees, as well as the traditional newspaper ads and Web job postings."

The prevailing approach to IT recruiting taps into a pool of current IT professionals at other organizations, but a more effective approach would expand this draw of talent from two additional audiences: college students and business professionals, according to Forrester.

Next Page: Finding a needle in the IT haystack.


"IT is hiring again, but they feel like its finding a needle in a haystack. IT recruits from three major audiences, but recruiters tend to only focus on one: current IT professionals," Bright said. "In this middle, we have a huge squeeze. Theyre looking for specialized skills and people with the three key components of technical skills, business acumen and interpersonal skills are the most sought-after and hardest to hire."

"As a de facto recruiting strategy, this is ineffective use of time as it doesnt do anything to expand the pool, and leads to salary inflation, poaching and a very overfished pond," Bright said.

College students and student interns remain an underused talent stream for enterprise IT because IT leaders are either unwilling to invest in them or are disillusioned because of negative past experiences, according to the Forrester re­­port. Cost constraints are often cited by CIOs at smaller organizations as a barrier to hiring re­­cent college graduates because training them can be costly.

College interns often complain that theyve been given an unclear career path, leaving them confused as to their roles and future, according to Forrester. In addition, IT leaders often have unrealistic expectations of college interns or a lack of comfort with generational differences in work styles and approaches to technology.

"As for college students, on the front end so many organizations are not comfortable hiring at the entry level, but on the back end baby boomers and the first wave of IT professionals will soon retire, so the pool needs to be expanded," Bright said.

A more practical approach would be to start earlier, argues Forrester, because by the time students graduate from high school, they may have already been conditioned against IT by well-meaning parents. Communicating with middle and high school students, reaching out to guidance counselors and offering internships to promising high school students are better approaches to countering negative images of IT and presenting it as a rewarding career option.

Furthermore, establishing the role of a part-time college relationship manager who can monitor the talent pipeline, develop relationships with professors, evangelize recruiting and coordinate recruiting with human resources has proved successful, as has revitalizing an IT internship program that supplements college studies and involves former interns in shaping the program.

Partnering with vendors that have an established recruiting infrastructure, have technology for e-learning­ curricula or that will sponsor an internship was seen by Forrester as helpful to CIOs in attracting students to an enterprise IT career.

Business professionals were considered by Forrester as a potentially large but invisible source that IT leaders can utilize. CIOs typically found the most desirable candidates among superusers, who have both technical aptitude and business knowledge, "shadow IT" (people who develop business unit-specific applications) and IT counterparts, who work as technology project leads. Business-to-IT rotational transfers, though still relatively uncommon, led to many permanent transfers once individuals were sold on the ability to influence business processes, Forresters report said.

IT leaders are likely already marketing ITs accomplishments to business users, but theyd benefit from marketing the career aspect as well. Being alert to the candidate pool, from superusers to individuals who recently may have been the victims of layoffs, is considered helpful, as is continuously marketing the IT career opportunity to adjacent employees, the report said.

Furthermore, by enhancing communication and mobility between IT and business, once IT has elevated its reputation with the business through consistent performance and general marketing, it often finds an increase in inbound inquiries from business professionals who want an end-to-end view of technologys role in enabling business operations, according to the report.

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