Talent Wars: Are Your IT Staffers Being Poached?

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Dan Herrington says his first inkling of a brewing IT talent war came early this spring, when he noticed that "college kids weren't accepting our offers on the spot."

This was a first for Herrington, who is executive sponsor of college recruiting for IT at USAA, a San Antonio-based Fortune 200 insurer and financial services company that has been No. 1 on Computerworld's Best Places to Work in IT list for two years in a row.

Herrington adds that another disturbing new trend is a "marked increase" in the number of college hires who accept job offers but then later change their minds. "We've seen college students reneging on internships as well," he notes.

USAA has responded by expanding its out-of-state college recruiting efforts and stepping up communication with interns between the time they accept an internship and their first scheduled day on the job. So far, the approach appears to be working, as evidenced by nearly 200 college hires -- both full-time employees and interns -- in 2011.

In Melbourne, Fla., Vinay Patel, senior software engineering manager at Harris Corp., has been seeking experienced software developers for three or four months. So far, only two applicants have passed both telephone and in-person interviews. Both were offered employment, but one turned down Patel's offer and the other accepted but subsequently reneged a week before he was due to start. Apparently, he received a better offer, Patel says. "The job seekers seem to be in the driver's seat right now," he notes.

A quick scan of numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics confirms this about-face in the IT job market. In May, it pegged the IT unemployment rate at 3.8%, significantly lower than the national average unemployment rate of 9.1%. At the same time, 65% of 900 hiring managers surveyed by Dice.com said they expect to hire even more tech professionals in the second half of this year than they did during the first six months of 2011. "The growth has reached a level where positions are staying open for months due to a shortage of qualified technology professionals," according to the Dice report, which went on to suggest that now may be a great time for IT job candidates to ask for more money than they're offered initially.

"Technology professionals are the basis for innovation, efficiency and creating an agile workplace," says Tom Silver, senior vice president of Dice.com. "Now is the time to ask for more money. Negotiate hard at the outset of a new job, because that initial salary may set the base for the next three years."

Talent Pipeline

Building Bench Strength

Long-term IT workforce planning and job rotations are two of the best weapons in the war for IT talent, say many CIOs.

After conducting a demographic study and realizing that 35% of the IT workforce at Guardian Life Insurance was eligible for retirement in the next decade, CIO Frank Wander and his team got cracking on the company's new Talent 2020 program. Among other things, the program analyzes the skills of all IT employees and then pairs newer employees with veterans to facilitate knowledge transfer.

At Medtronic, CIO Mike Hedges has established an IT Talent Council, which is headed on a rotating basis by IT vice presidents from Medtronic's various business units.

"The council consists of directors and senior managers who look at talent across the organization and come up with new ways to attract and retain," Hedges says. One of the programs involves moving 30 to 40 managers from the business units to the company's shared services unit "to make sure that people are not getting stuck in a rut," he says.

Hedges also has identified the company's top IT talent, which he defines as "people we'd have a significant challenge replacing because of their interpersonal, leadership and planning skills."

Hedges meets with at least five of these employees monthly and has them all meet regularly, sometimes for dinner, as a way to practice their interpersonal skills and forge closer relationships.

"It's the softer skills -- like teamwork and communication, problem-solving and analytical skills -- that we'd find harder to source," he notes.

Harris Corp. rotates employees through various departments and roles so they can gain broad first-hand knowledge about the company's lines of business across its commercial and defense units. The idea is to give employees a chance to see opportunities for growth and what kinds of work might most appeal to them.

"I want to make sure I can provide an environment where employees feel they can grow their skill sets and professional characteristics and be in an engaged learning environment," says Vinay Patel, senior software engineering manager at Harris. "We constantly push people to different roles and give them different projects. I can't think of a single person on my team who has been in the same role for more than two to three years."

- Julia King

A surge in corporate use of social media, mobile tools and cloud technologies, coupled with loosening IT purse strings and pent-up demand for IT-based business projects, are all big factors driving the escalation in need for IT talent -- and the related escalation in competition for that talent. The shrinking size of the pool of qualified college graduates and the ever-expanding surge of baby boomer retirements are also key contributors.

Earlier this year, 48% of CIOs said it is very or somewhat challenging to find the skilled IT professionals they need, according to the Robert Half Technology IT Hiring Index and Skills Report.

"The reality is that as technology pervades every aspect of personal and professional life, the need for technical talent is huge," says Shawn Banerji, managing director of IT recruiting company Russell Reynolds in New York. "People on the service provider side are looking to hire, and traditional corporate IT departments are also looking to hire. There is absolutely a war for talent."

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