Careers: Retaining Employees Back in Focus

CIOs talk up employee retention strategies; the return of travel, training, and table tennis

At some point over the last three years, you’ve probably felt the increasingly tight nature of your organization's IT budget. Perhaps it was during the serial layoffs of late 2001 and 2002, or possibly later, when the responsibilities of several of your departed coworkers or direct reports were dumped in your lap, with nary a hint of extra compensation.

It was an employee’s market during the boom of the late 1990’s, to be sure, but it’s been (far and away, at that) an employer’s market ever since. As a result, some IT professionals are dissatisfied with—and feel downright exploited by—their existing employers.

“I am handling the job responsibilities of two to three [departed coworkers], in addition to my own,” says a production support specialist with a prominent telecommunications company. “Believe it or not, I actually worry my managers will think I’m incompetent because I’m not able to get everything done.”

The good news, for this IT professional and for others like him, is that the pendulum may be swinging in the other direction.

According to IT staffing firm Robert Half Technology, a majority of IT decision-makers say that retaining key personnel will become more important as the economic outlook continues to improve. Robert Half asked more than 1,400 CIOs from U.S. companies with 100 or more employees the same question: "In your opinion, is the retention of your IT staff becoming more or less important as the economy improves?"

The results were encouraging. One-quarter of CIOs responded that retaining IT staff was “much more important,” while fully one-third affirmed that employee retention is “somewhat more important.” Only one percent indicated that IT staff retention is “much less important.”

That’s not to say that companies are about to starting coddling IT professionals. In fact, CIOs were very specific about the kinds of employees they hope to retain, says Jeff Markham, a division director for Robert Half. “These are positions that can directly save costs or increase profits—infrastructure security, database security—those are very important positions, I think people will do anything to retain those kinds of people,” he explains.

At the same time, CIOs aren’t convinced that we’re in the midst of a bust-to-boom economic revitalization, either. “They’re maybe not perceiving that this recovery is as solid as it’s being written up. Most just think that we’re just getting back to normal business numbers; this recovery seems to be more getting back to normal staffing levels, versus hiring for growth in 2000,” he suggests.

More to the point, certain job sectors are still wildly oversaturated as a result of the late-90’s boom, says Markham: “It’s the areas where CIOs feel there’s still an abundance of candidates out there, things like help desk and technical support, where there are still a lot of people who aren’t employed in those areas.”

If the tentative economic recovery does have legs, Markham expects that CIOs will gradually expand and redefine their understandings of “key” employees. If that happens, he says, IT professionals could see a partial return to the perks of the late 1990’s. “Many people did keep their jobs during the downturn, so if they perceive that they are not valued today, or that they weren’t valued during the downturn, they’re going to keep an eye on the market,” he explains.

“Even now, we are talking to companies who are putting more controls in place to retain employees. Things like pool tables or ping pong tables. We have a major company here in San Francisco that just instituted half-day Fridays.”

In the case of a sustained recovery, Markham expects that companies could put other once-de-rigueur perks—such as training and travel budgets, along with bigger bonuses—back on the table.

About the Author

Stephen Swoyer is a Nashville, TN-based freelance journalist who writes about technology.