Hold Your Talent

Frequently the covers of magazines and newspapers trumpet feature stories about the "Best Places to Work." This is a particularly popular subject with IT vendors and with IT-intensive companies, and there is good reason for that.

The current and anticipated shortage of skilled IT professionals in the U.S. are staggering. The Department of Labor says there are a half-million IT jobs unfilled. This is not due to a temporary dislocation of workers, but because the workers don’t exist. The most common openings are data base administrator, network professional and, increasingly, Web application specialists.

While the problem is most acute in technology-heavy areas such as Boston, San Francisco and metropolitan New York, you’ll find that the help wanted section of almost any Sunday newspaper crammed with IT ads.

There have been two very visible results from this supply-and-demand imbalance. First, wages in the IT marketplace continue to shoot up. Twenty-something Web developers with three years experience easily command $60,000 annual salaries in some of the strapped markets. The second result has been the aforementioned "Best Places to Work" articles because of an increasing focus on keeping the good people in place.

I clipped and saved a number of these articles. I searched for some common points of employee-retention expertise across a variety of companies and tapped my own experiences from two decades in an office setting, most of that as a manager. Whether you are the manager or the managed, here are a few criteria that some companies are employing to hang on to their best people. They may not be what you expect.

Don’t go postal. A friend of mine has worked for the post office for 20 years. He works on a sorting machine all day. He has applied for management positions in the past, but he is working in a very difficult political environment. The organization is the antithesis of the "Best Places to Work." A company should reward its people based on merit, not on politically motivated criteria. My friend is a Navy veteran and a university graduate, unfortunately his skills are not transferable to other jobs. He’s stuck where he is. Luckily, that is not the case with IT workers that feel victimized by shoddy promotional practices.

Show you care. You know how kids crave attention, even the bad kind? Well, most of us are just big kids when it comes to the need to be appreciated. We sometimes want something more for our professional efforts than the usual paycheck. It is the manager’s job to provide feedback in a regular, systematic way. I’m not talking about HR-mandated performance reviews. I’m talking about informal feedback that can be something as simple as a two-line e-mail message about a job well-done. As an editor with a staff of 75 people, I used to take three or more hours each week to compose a lengthy critique of our weekly publication. This critique was devoured by the staff, whether my remarks were good, bad or indifferent. I secretly hated this time-consuming task, but to the staff it was a much-desired, regular critique of their work. It showed them someone cared and was paying attention.

Define family- and lifestyle-friendly in unique terms. SAS Institute, the big, private software company based in Cary, N.C., is always listed in the top 10 of any best-places-to-work list, and with good reason. Despite paying sub-par wages, SAS goes to extraordinary lengths to create a family-friendly atmosphere that is in synch with many of today’s creative and bright workers. Call SAS before 9 a.m. or after 5 p.m. and you’ll get a recording announcing the office is closed. The company expects its workers to have a life outside work. SAS also has an on-site daycare center, permitting parents to spend lunch with their children in the wonderful cafeteria, where the company owner also eats. Casual dress was in vogue at SAS long before dress-down became the high tech norm.

Spare the commute. Cubicles are repressive places to work, as the cartoon Dilbert has revealed to everyone. Knowledge workers today are often more productive per unit of work time when working from home offices, as they are free from office distractions and banality, not to mention commuter traffic. Surveys show the best companies facilitate home work by providing the equipment and network services that enable it. --Bill Laberis is president of Bill Laberis Associates Inc. (Holliston, Mass.) and former editor-in-chief of Computerworld. Contact him at bill@laberis.com.