Staffing: How to Hook the Talent You Need

Things to do today and tomorrow to keep your evolving IT department stocked with the best and most useful employees.

Wanted: Experienced IT professionals with broad technical competency and working knowledge of both emerging technologies and legacy systems. Should have top-notch analytical and problem-solving prowess, excellent communication skills, and the ability to work well independently and as a member of a team. Must have experience in business process management, certification in project management and a solid understanding of enterprise architecture. Customer service attitude required. Vendor management background a plus.

It's no longer a matter of debate: The nature of IT is evolving from technical support center to innovative business partner. And the mix of skills needed to staff the new IT department is changing as well. While technical proficiency is still important, CIOs are desperately seeking hires with project management expertise, enterprise and industry knowledge, and the business skills necessary for customer-facing roles. Forty-one percent of CIOs said they place greater emphasis today on a job candidate's knowledge of business fundamentals than they did five years ago, according to a 2006 Robert Half Technology survey.

What is unclear is how CIOs will meet this demand. The supply of business-IT professionals is tight. Enrollment in U.S. computer science and engineering programs has plunged five straight years, down 50 percent from 2000 to 2005, according to the most recent study by the Computing Research Association. CIOs complain that students who do pursue traditional IT programs don't get adequate exposure to soft skills. Seasoned professionals with that valuable combination of business and technology skills inch nearer to retirement. One-third of U.S. workers will be over the age of 50 by 2010; the first baby boomers reach retirement age in 2011. Skilled midcareer workers, who could fill the gap, risk being ignored or underutilized.


For an in-depth look at staffing trends, including a list of top skills by region, see CIO magazine's

2006 Midyear Staffing Update

Yet successful IT staffing is more important than ever. "Talent is the differentiator between creating significant business advantage with IT and not," says Alastair Behenna, CIO of global recruiter Harvey Nash Group.

Staffing pressures are affecting everyone, from smaller businesses to Fortune 500 companies, nonprofits to the public sector, industry to industry. In fact, IT leaders ranked finding, hiring and retaining workers with the needed skill sets among their top staffing concerns, according to CIO's "2006 Midyear Staffing Update."

"We're all going after the same talent pool," says Diane Wallace, CIO for the state of Connecticut. "These issues are going to be with us for a while, and there's no magic bullet coming. CIOs have to solve it for themselves."

A talent war is brewing, and CIOs cannot wait for the calvary to ride over the hill with the right recruits. "You're going to be in trouble if you're not working to interest kids in IT, to recruit them out of the university, to develop your own employees and retain them," says GM CIO and group VP Ralph Szygenda.

To win, CIOs must arm themselves by taking significant steps to ease today's staffing squeeze and lay the groundwork for tomorrow's growth. Prepare your own battle plan by studying the tactics—some old, some new—employed by forward-looking CIOs.


Rethink Hiring Practices

An alarming disconnect exists between what CIOs claim to want in entry-level candidates and the skill sets of those they actually hire. Business capabilities and project management expertise represented eight of the top 10 skills identified as critical to keep in-house, according to a recent survey by the Society for Information Management (SIM). However, the majority of respondents primarily sought technical skills in entry-level recruits.

Why the incongruity? CIOs who have spent years looking for technical proficiency may have trouble adjusting their hiring practices to net candidates with business and IT skills. "This is new territory. We know what to look for in pure IT roles that have comfortable certifications, job titles and descriptions to measure against," says Harvey Nash's Behenna. "[These new roles] are still in their infancy."

Chris Stockley, CIO and VP of $4.2 billion building contractor Skanska, wants employees with a customer service mind-set who excel at communication and collaboration. "Technical proficiency is something we look for," he says, "but it's the last criteria we care about."

Stockley uses various tactics to tease out business skills in candidates after their initial HR screening and interview. For instance, all potential hires must give a presentation about anything...except IT or the construction industry. "The content is irrelevant. I've seen presentations on everything from how to bake chocolate chip cookies to how to shoot pool," says Stockley. "The issue is how they communicate and [how they] handle a stressful situation."

A handful of IT employees, the hiring manager and one of a rotating group of senior executives sit in on the presentations. Candidates could find themselves explaining how to fold a napkin to the CEO. It's not a pass-fail assignment; one of Stockley's best directors of customer service bombed her first time out. She won the position by asking for another shot and turning her performance around.

"You may uncover some not-so-positive characteristics. It doesn't mean you don't hire someone, but you know the areas of potential concern. You've had a positive conversation about improving their skills before they're even an employee," he says.

Stockley then puts job candidates through a simulated customer service exercise. A potential member of the infrastructure team may have to communicate a technical issue to a businessperson face-to-face. "We look at how well they settle down the customer. Or how well they provide a nontechnical description of a technical issue," says Stockley. "We put everyone through it."

Collaborate with HR and Recruiters

CIOs tend to be do-it-yourselfers, says Katherine Spencer Lee, executive director of Robert Half Technology. That can be a problem when it comes to staffing. "They don't take advantage of all the resources at their disposal," says Lee. Human resources professionals and recruiters can be the CIO's best friend, she says. But for that relationship to bear fruit, CIOs must make time to convey their staffing needs.

GM's Szygenda recruits mostly midlevel and senior-level employees for project management, business liaison and vendor management positions. The hardest slots to fill are his "process information officer" roles, which require a solid IT background and strong business operations experience. "Finding those people is getting harder and harder," says Szygenda. "And the recruiters bring us the same people over and over."

His solution? Meeting with recruiters regularly. "They have a lot of clients. They go to whoever screams the loudest," he says. "We set aside time to meet with them every week and put pressure on them to come back with someone outside their database."

Skanska's Stockley invites recruiters to IT's annual vendor event, where he shares his group's recent accomplishments and three-year plan. "We may not specifically say, 'In three years, we'll need this particular skill set,'" he explains. "But this way they not only understand our hiring processes but they also know what's coming in the marketplace."

At the most recent event, Skanska highlighted its new focus on application integration and its need for project managers with application integration experience and for business process analysts. "The recruiters started sending us viable candidates before we had even opened a rec for any positions," says Stockley.

Bring Back Bonuses and Other Benefits

Retention wasn't a problem during the economic downturn. "The job market was so bad that CIOs said, 'Nobody's going to go looking around,'" says Kate Kaiser, the Marquette University associate professor who led the SIM study. That's no longer true. Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows tech employment above its 2001 hiring peak, with 3.5 million U.S. IT professionals employed today. A healthy job market is bad news for CIOs who aren't working to retain their best and brightest.

"Incentives, special compensation programs and signing bonuses are more of a requirement today," says Szygenda, who finds himself offering more money to attract and retain employees. "We didn't have to do any of that a few years ago."

GM declined to elaborate on its compensation tactics. However, average IT compensation will rise 4 percent this year, according to Forrester. But salary increases can vary wildly from job to job. Workers in roles vulnerable to automation or outsourcing, such as call center, applications maintenance and technical support, may actually see their pay decline, says Forrester. Those with skills in service-oriented architecture, business process reengineering and project management, where demand for workers outstrips supply, will see double-digit salary growth.

Not everyone has money to throw at the problem. Larry Bonfante, CIO of the U.S. Tennis Association, a $220 million nonprofit, vies for talent with Manhattan's financial services firms. "J.P. Morgan is a half-hour train ride away, and they pay twice as much," says Bonfante. To compete, he plays up the excitement surrounding the USTA and its collegial atmosphere. "We try to create a context that people find more attractive."

His most valuable perk? Flexibility. "We don't chew people up and spit them out like the financial services industry," says Bonfante. "That's compelling to a lot of people." It's how he attracted two of his best directors, both women with small children. "We allow people to work from home and provide flexible hours for many staff," says Bonfante. "I'm not a clock watcher. I'm interested in results. If you have to leave early to go to a ballet recital, God bless."

A third of IT workers said they value a flexible work schedule more than other nontraditional benefits, according to the "2006 Compensation and Benefits Report" by Hudson Highland Group. "Employees are more willing to forgo additional cash in order to have a more improved work-life balance," says Peg Buchenroth, Hudson Highland Group's managing director of compensation and benefits.

Flextime is also the most common benefit used to motivate or retain IT workers, according to CIO's staffing survey, with 61 percent of organizations employing it.

Get Creative About Training

Another benefit IT professionals value is job-related training, according to the Hudson report. But training budgets got slashed during the downturn, and bringing them back remains challenging. Some CIOs have coped by finding creative ways to fund training.

Connecticut CIO Wallace needed business-savvy staff with good communication and negotiation skills to market IT-business solutions to internal customers. To cultivate these talents in-house, she sacrificed an upgrade to her project management software and funneled that $11,000 into a customized four-day training program developed with a local college. "We can upgrade the application next year," says Wallace. "What good is a software upgrade anyway, if you don't have the right skills to pull it off?"

CIO Alan Boehme takes a different tack at Juniper Networks, a $2 million router manufacturer that competes with the likes of Cisco. Boehme tracks all the money IT generates or saves the business and reinvests a percentage in professional development, such as funding staff training at the Project Management Institute. "We make the case that a portion be used in IT for training and education in order for us to become more operationally proficient and able to deliver future benefits to the business faster," he says.

Others take a do-it-yourself approach. Harrah's CIO Tim Stanley came from companies that valued training and offered robust corporate programs. At the gaming giant, he developed his own program to cover business and technical subjects ranging from finance to data architecture. The program was developed by in-house staff who had subject area expertise and some background in training.

For advanced training, he's called on his vendors to help by building into their contracts a number of prepaid training hours. Tibco, for example, offers training on everything from basic technology to advanced architecture training. But Stanley insists vendors do it onsite and within the context of Harrahs systems. He also works with other third parties to offer online certifications for his staff.

Launch Business-IT Rotation Programs

Harrah's Stanley knows the benefit of employee give-and-take with the business. He rotates about 20 percent of his IT staff annually into different roles in the department or the business, sometimes during a project. He also actively recruits IT-savvy business staffers from local properties and corporate business functions. The business doesn't protest. "We've given more than our fair share," says Stanley. "Marketing and operations pilfered from us for years because IT folks have functional knowledge and orientation in logic."

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