At Last! HR Pros Who Understand IT

As the market for tech talent heats up, some companies gain competitive advantage with HR staffers who specialize in IT recruitment.

If you've ever had to hire someone in IT, this drill might sound familiar:

Step 1: Explain to an overworked, underfocused human resources generalist what you need in a new hire.

Step 2: Struggle to make clear the subtle differences among IT roles.

Step 3: Toss out half of the resumes selected by the HR rep after Steps 1 and 2 prove ineffective.

Step 4: Endure squirm-inducing interviews with the remaining candidates, who are still mismatched in one way or another.

Step 5: Repeat.

Jean Scire feels your pain -- that cycle of frustration was part of her life in previous IT positions. But no more. That's because Scire currently works for Philips North America, and Philips has an expert in hiring IT workers on its human resources staff, and that makes a world of difference, she says.

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"Hiring is hard; there's a lot of time invested in it," says Scire, senior director of healthcare IT operations and programs at the Philips facility in Andover, Mass. "I want to make that whole process as lean as possible, because there's nothing worse than sitting in an interview two minutes in and knowing that I'm not going to hire [the interviewee]."

Julie Magliozzi, IT talent acquisition specialist for Philips, says her job is to understand what managers like Scire need and then find them the right candidates. "Even if we don't have a single open position, I'm always networking with top IT talent, kind of grooming them for when we do have openings," Magliozzi says. "I understand the needs of the people in my network, and I understand the needs of IT because I support only IT, so I can make the best match for both."

That's a valuable contribution when you consider how difficult finding the right candidate can be.

In February, IT staffing firm TEKsystems reported that it had conducted a survey in which 78% of the IT managers polled said that they agreed or strongly agreed that many IT resumes contain buzzwords that are irrelevant to the individual's experience. Moreover, 77% of IT leaders responding said that they agreed or strongly agreed that many IT resumes include exaggerations, and 40% said that they believe IT professionals commonly get positions for which they are unqualified.

The impact of such mismatches can be significant. In a CareerBuilder survey released last December, 69% of the employers polled reported that their companies were adversely affected by a bad hire in 2012, with 41% of those businesses estimating the cost of that bad hire to be more than $25,000 and 24% saying the bad hire cost them more than $50,000. Those cost estimates -- which cover bad hires of all types of workers, not just IT employees -- include recruiting and training costs, plus lost productivity.

Given those stakes, it's no surprise that companies like Philips, with approximately 2,100 IT employees around the world, including 460 in the U.S., are using in-house experts to smooth the process.

"It is certainly more efficient, because I don't have to ask questions A through Z every time," Magliozzi says. "I understand 20 of those 26 answers already. I know where we're going because I know what we've done in the past that worked, and what skill sets work within IT."

Tracking IT's Many Changes

Retaining an HR professional who specializes in IT makes sense given the current demand for certain tech skills and the generally changeable nature of IT, says Bruce Ballengee, president and CEO of Pariveda Solutions, a Dallas-based IT consulting firm.

IT is full of specialties with unique skill requirements, and every discipline and technology seems to have its own set of acronyms that only insiders understand. All of that could easily confuse and overwhelm an HR rep who's assigned to help on a one-off basis, says Ballengee, a founding member of the Society for Information Management's Enterprise Architecture Working Group. What's more, he adds, "IT specialties come and go, so that puts an extra burden on HR recruiters, more so than in other types of business disciplines."

It's not just hiring managers who benefit from having IT specialists in HR; candidates themselves may prefer to work with IT-conversant HR reps, and that in turn helps companies attract better talent, says Scott Hajer, a recruiting manager at Pariveda.

"These are people who are getting pinged by lots of recruiters, and being someone who speaks their language is going to allow you to engage them better and leave them with a better impression," he says. That enables the company to land sought-after candidates who may have been less impressed with other companies' generic hiring processes.

Bryan Banks, an associate manager of talent acquisition at Aflac in Columbus, Ga., has an IT specialist on staff and was himself an IT recruiter for 15 years. The value of the position comes from being able to really understand IT-speak.

"It's not just understanding acronyms, but understanding hardware, software, and the [differences] between, for example, a network engineer and a system administrator," he says. "Someone who is not an IT recruiter, it's not that they can't learn, but there is a heavy learning curve to understand all the systems."

That insight allows IT-focused recruiters to be proactive. Because they get to know the hiring managers, their teams, the culture and the department's road map, they're able to scout for talent before their company needs it, Banks says, echoing Philips' Magliozzi.

Checklist

Three Steps to Hiring Well in IT

IT-focused HR pros offer three tips for finding tech talent in a tight market:

1. Build relationships in the marketplace. Join professional organizations and attend events. The best IT workers aren't necessarily the ones who are actively looking for work, so you have to seek them out, says Scott Hajer, a recruiting manager at Pariveda Solutions.

2. Early in the hiring process, spend time articulating the projects and challenges you want the new employee to tackle. "IT people love a challenge, and they want to walk in the door and have an understanding of the type of projects they're going to be working on," says Bryan Banks, an associate manager of talent acquisition at Aflac. "If you can paint that picture, you set up the candidate for success."

3. Don't just ask candidates what they did in their previous jobs; find out how and why they did what they did to get a better sense of their skills, motivation and temperament. "To get the right people in place, try to focus less on the buzzwords on the resume, and more on who you are hiring," says Julie Magliozzi, IT talent acquisition specialist at Philips North America.

- Mary K. Pratt

Companies that are too small to justify employing a full-time IT hiring specialist can still benefit by cultivating close relationships between their IT managers and third-party recruiters, says Claire Schooley, an analyst at Forrester Research.

"I've worked with companies where the outsourcers were almost like employees because they knew the company so well," says Schooley. "Companies that need very, very specialized IT people make sure the recruiters really talk with the managers and get inside their heads and make sure they understand what they need."

Schooley says many companies don't foster those kinds of relationships -- with either in-house recruiters or outside headhunters. "The recruiting people see the job description and that's all they see, and they don't understand what the IT manager wants," she observes. "But the closer that relationship, the better the end product is."

At Publix Super Markets in Lakeland, Fla., fostering a good relationship between recruiters and IT professionals is a priority. The retailer's tech staffing and training function resides within the IT group. IT workforce manager Melanie McClellan, who reports to the director of IT finance, has a staff of three people who work with tech managers on recruiting, hiring and training for the IT team of 1,050.

"We build very strong relationships with our hiring managers, so we get to a place where we can anticipate their needs. We can align our efforts with their strategic goals, their unique microcultures," says IT recruiter Rhonda Burke, who reports to McClellan.

A leadership position that recently opened up in Publix's enterprise data warehouse group needed an updated job description. Because Burke had been working with the group and knew its strategy, she and senior IT management were able to quickly define the position's scope as well as required and preferred qualifications. "There's a nice dialogue that happens before the job posting so we're on point," she explains.

Marilyn Talbot, chief human resources officer at Ascension Health Information Services (AHIS), agrees that knowing the company well is key to making great IT hires.

The IT organization that serves Ascension Health, a Catholic healthcare system, AHIS employs nearly 3,000 IT associates. Two hiring specialists, including recruiter Kraig Whittenberg, handle the 225 IT job openings that AHIS averages each year.

Asking the right questions and figuring from the answers whether candidates will fit into the IT culture, where they'll best serve IT, what managers they'll best mesh with, and where they might move within the company in the future -- that's the real art of recruiting, Whittenberg says.

"It's not just knowing the skill sets, it's understanding the overall picture," he says. "And the better you can be at that, the further ahead you are."

Pratt is a Computerworld contributing writer in Waltham, Mass. You can contact her at marykpratt@verizon.net.

This version of this story was originally published in Computerworld's print edition. It was adapted from an article that appeared earlier on Computerworld.com.

Read more about management in Computerworld's Management Topic Center.

This story, "At Last! HR Pros Who Understand IT" was originally published by Computerworld.

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