by Stephanie Overby

How to Recruit Talent in a Hot Market: Everything You’re Doing Is Wrong

Jul 20, 200711 mins
IT Leadership

Your old recruiting methods aren't going to cut it if you want to woo top IT professionals today. Here's what works now.

The first quarter of this year saw the biggest net hiring increase in enterprise IT in more than five years, according to Robert Half’s survey of CIOs. It’s officially a seller’s market for IT talent. Good news for IT professionals. Bad news for IT hiring managers.

A hotter job market combined with a limited IT talent pipeline means you have to be more proactive—and more sophisticated—in your recruiting methods, says Forrester’s IT Staffing and Careers analyst Samuel Bright, who shares new tricks of the trade (including how to attract millennials, how to uncover a shadow market of IT recruits in the business, and how to expand your universe of IT professionals) from his recent report Recruiting IT Talent: Adjusting to a Hot Market.

More on Recruiting

Four Tips for Attracting the Shadow Market of IT Recruits in the Business

Four Tips for Recruiting More Top IT Professionals

Four Tips for Attracting Millennials (and Beyond)

How to Recruit Talented Tech Workers to Out-of-the-Way Places Enterprise IT is experiencing the largest net hiring increase in five years. To what do you attribute that?

Samuel Bright: The skills needs of enterprise IT have become more specialized, and because many IT organizations do not have these skills in house, they have been forced to go out into the marketplace. Many IT organizations are trying to shift from technology-focused cost centers to business process consultants. That requires a new type of IT candidate possessing technical versatility, interpersonal skills and business knowledge. As client-facing roles (project management, vendor management and so on) have gained importance, CIOs dissatisfied with the ability of existing employees to step into these roles have started to look outward.

That creates what you describe as a “seller’s market.”

Consulting firms, outsourcers and vendors are the “buyers” of talent. The sellers are the prospects themselves who are offering themselves and their skills as talent. Because there is greater demand for talent, “sellers,” especially those with highly sought-after skills, require extra wooing from enterprise IT leaders. They have more options and more leverage, and are pickier about their choices of employment. Compensation alone will not be enough to win over top-quartile talent or retain them once they join enterprise IT.

Are most IT organizations adequately prepared to market their positions in a way that woos these sought-after new hires effectively?

First of all, I think IT leaders make the mistake of marketing open positions specifically, without marketing the differentiators of working in their enterprise IT shops as well. Many CIOs are still searching for a silver-bullet solution to their recruiting problems. They do not understand that a hotter IT job market combined with a limited IT talent pipeline necessitates that IT leaders be more sophisticated and proactive in their recruiting practices, particularly in crowded geographic markets. And those who do understand the need for greater sophistication are, by and large, early in the thought process of determining how to brand their organizations to attract the talent they need.

Among the challenges IT leaders face in recruiting today is the lack of quality in the résumés that get to their desks. Whose fault is that—applicants, HR departments, third-party recruiters? Or are IT leaders not communicating clearly enough what they really need?

Really, it’s a mixture of all the parties involved. Prospects have learned all the key technical buzzwords to put on their résumés. CIOs are disillusioned about the accuracy of these buzzwords and whether they correlate to any real skills and proficiency. Recruiting firms and HR departments without sufficient IT knowledge or context fall for the ruse and refer “buzzword candidates” to IT, lengthening the time and cost it takes to find truly qualified candidates. And CIOs do not always emphasize the importance of business acumen, technical versatility and interpersonal skills in their job reqs, painting an incomplete picture of their expectations for candidates by only listing technical qualifications.

Getting back to those third-party recruiters, you found IT leaders are none too happy with them either. Is that solvable?

Common complaints about those involved in finding “good-fit” candidates (including third-party recruiters and HR) include ignorance of the role of IT culture, recycling of résumés found on online job boards and insufficient prescreening of candidates.

Is there a solution? Well, that depends on finding the right recruiter and going the extra mile to train them about IT’s environment. There are no shortcuts here, only trial by fire. First, CIOs need to identify recruiters who are IT specialists. Past experience working in IT enables recruiters to better probe candidate résumés and screen for fit within the organization. IT leaders need to set clear expectations for success so that both parties have the same metrics. They need to engage recruiters, teaching them about IT’s culture so that they are more knowledgeable about finding culturally aligned candidates. And, last but not least, IT needs to set consistent recruiting standards. Once IT is content with HR’s filter and overall candidate quality, it needs to work with [third-partyrecruiters] to institute the same screening standards and track their ability to deliver to those standards.

You note that geography can further constrain IT recruiting efforts.

Geography plays a large role in the relative tightness of the job market and the availability of talent to fill open positions. Although CIOs are willing to recruit outside of their geographies, candidates might be reluctant to relocate due to quality of life and spouse employment opportunities. This reluctance to relocate forces IT leaders to “cannibalize” the local market. One CIO in a particularly crowded market for talent opened a remote office in Colorado Springs hoping to entice young IT professionals who ski. Often, the best applicants are foreign nationals, but hiring these individuals, because they are frequently seeking costly green-card sponsorship, raises IT’s cost to hire because of the associated legal costs. In addition, there is a limited pool of H1-B visas from which to draw.

One of the tried-and-true IT recruiting tactics has always been poaching tech talent from other IT shops. Why is that no longer enough?

First, they are competing with other CIOs, consulting firms, vendors, outsourcers and staffing firms for the same pool of talent without broadening the talent pool. Secondly, macro trends (lower interest in pursuing computer science careers among young people, impending retirement of the first wave of baby boomers, increasing specialization of skills required by IT) are shrinking the available pool of current IT professionals to draw from. As a result, there is fiercer competition, more poaching, and higher compensation demands that make this method of recruiting unaffordable or unsustainable.

Instead, you say IT leaders should broaden their efforts and focus on three core audiences of potential IT recruits: current IT professionals, college students and tech-savvy businesspeople. Why those three?

Many IT shops are putting all their eggs in one basket by focusing all of their recruiting efforts on other enterprise IT professionals. By so doing, they overlook talent at other IT industry players and in other talent pools. IT’s failure to effectively engage academia and college students prolongs its talent pipeline problems by discouraging students from pursuing IT careers because of a perceived lack of opportunity. The business professional audience has been targeted informally, but few IT organizations have thought about the types of business professionals that would be a good fit within IT and how to reach them.

Are IT organizations prepared to target their messages to these three distinct audiences?

No. There has to be a mind shift that the landscape has changed, the talent market is hotter and the pipeline is limited. Until CIOs recognize how scrappy competition is for talent and connect that to the need for changing their approaches to recruiting, they will mistakenly believe that the status quo is sufficient and marketing to a broader set of audiences is unnecessary.

Are IT leaders more likely to be good at attracting one group more than another?

Though easier in the short term, CIOs should not make the mistake of recruiting from one or two audiences and neglecting the others. One of the messages of this report is that CIOs need to determine their IT organization’s brand and leverage it to attract good-fit talent. As part of this process, CIOs determine the cultural differentiators specific to their organizations. These differentiators have different levels of attractiveness to the three audiences (that is, social responsibility is more attractive to the college student audience, while process innovation is highly attractive to the business professional audience) and collectively comprise IT’s brand. They can utilize their existing assets combined with messaging of their brand to reach these audiences.

What are the barriers to effectively attracting new grads?

CIOs are sometimes unwilling to allocate headcount for entry-level hires or budget for training them. They also fail to articulate clear career paths for interns, which hinders them from converting them into full-time hires after graduation. On the other hand, college students often have unrealistic expectations about the nature of IT work and speed of their career progression. Also, generational differences in work styles create friction and mistrust between mature IT workers and fresh-out-of-college hires that may lead to a moratorium on entry-level hiring altogether.

You say the audience of mature IT professionals ripe for recruiting is actually much broader than CIOs think. Who are they overlooking?

IT and business faculty and researchers in academia can bring immediate value to enterprise IT and are great targets during sabbaticals or for part-time consulting projects. Contractors, consultants and vendor staff are also good sources of talent, though talent mobility will occur in both directions. These third-party business partners are not primary recruiting targets, but CIOs should be prepared to spot talent and have mutually agreed to processes in place to bring them on board so that they will not adversely affect those vendor relationships.

Business professionals are a big—but largely invisible—source of IT talent. Who are they? Where are they?

Business professionals are currently employed in other enterprise functions, but there are certain types of business professionals that are more natural fits for IT. Super users combine technical aptitude acquired through daily interaction with technology with underlying knowledge of the business. Shadow IT—people in the business who pursue or develop business unitspecific applications—might be recruited into IT to serve in relationship manager roles.

Business-to-IT rotations, though still relatively uncommon, offer recruitment opportunities for business professionals intrigued by the ability to influence processes or optimize business operations. Technology project leads might move into director-level roles in smaller IT organizations or project manager roles on the IT side after the initial project has been completed. Also, those with complementary backgrounds in science or engineering have developed higher-level critical thinking skills that transfer well into IT.

How does focusing more effectively on these three audiences solve an IT manager’s major recruiting headaches (like the low quality of résumés, constraints of geography and so on)?

The three-audiences approach provides the framework for tightening up IT’s recruiting practices and accessing quality talent that is currently overlooked. Geographic constraints will always be an issue. But instead of cannibalizing the enterprise IT pool, CIOs should broaden their talent sources to include these three audiences and brand their organizations to attract prospects that are culturally aligned with IT’s direction, regardless of their current location.

But you say it’s as much about changing the recruiting mind-set as it is about introducing new recruiting strategies and tactics. What’s wrong with the old recruiting mindset?

As talent becomes harder to find, many CIOs searching for a recruiting panacea are misjudging the level of effort required to attract and retain candidates in today’s environment. There is no silver bullet! IT leaders must quit treating employment in IT as a great honor that others should instinctively understand. Competition for talent is scrappy, and the most creative, tightly messaged, culturally aligned, people-focused IT organization will win in terms both of attracting talent and of retaining it over the long term.