What brain drain?

Baby boomers are retiring and taking their knowledge with them. Why do so few in IT seem to care?

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In addition, he says, it's common practice for companies to let IT professionals retire, figuring retirees can be rehired as consultants without their pay showing up in the budget as a salary cost. Of course, this is something of a shell game, DeLong points out. Not only are companies spending "an incredible amount of money on rehiring retirees," he says, but they're also not transferring their knowledge. "They just throw them back in the job, so they're just prolonging the problem," he notes.

And finally, he adds, do you really want your business to depend on someone who can go play golf anytime he wants?

On the frontier

It's no wonder that Barbara Ring at the Chubb Group of Insurance Companies felt like a pioneer when she recently embarked on a study of the Chubb IT organization's exposure in terms of employee retirements, in order to formulate a mitigation strategy.

Ring, senior vice president for IT HR, had reason for concern. The average tenure in IT at Chubb stands at 17 years -- a lot of time to accumulate key knowledge and experience -- and more retirements had begun to pop up. "We saw that over the next five to 10 years, this large influx of folks will be retirement-eligible, and the brain drain would negatively impact the company if we didn't have time for knowledge transfer, mentoring and other ways to maintain the intellectual property of the company," she says.

And with declining numbers of people entering IT, Ring adds, "we really need planning time to have the company not be at a disadvantage."

Ring is seeking not only to identify which Chubb IT professionals will soon be eligible for retirement, but also to determine their years of service, which technologies and applications they support, and how critical that knowledge is to the business. For instance, suppose 10 people support a mission-critical application that has been around a long time and involves some arcane knowledge. Now suppose five of them are nearing retirement eligibility. "That's a risk to the company," Ring says.

She has had to build the process for doing all this from scratch. "We haven't found a lot of peer companies doing this type of work," she notes.

Chubb's approach eschews any broad-based program that would offer perks and incentives to anyone nearing retirement. Instead, the company is studying exactly where its biggest risks lie. Then it will take steps to address those risks.

That's the approach DeLong advocates. "Often, management doesn't know what knowledge is at risk," he says.

The age of an employee doesn't necessarily corollate with his value to the organization, DeLong points out. Some near-retirees may have been at a company for only a short time, for example. And moreover, he says, "frankly, there are some people who should retire. Their skills aren't up to date or they don't have knowledge that's critical to the future of the business."

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