Finding tech talent tough as ever

Y2K is over -- so it should be easier to find information technology professionals, right? Not necessarily. With the rate of technological change showing no signs of slowing, and more businesses launching Web sites, Web troubles are affecting companies of all sizes, and the right IT support is more necessary than ever. A recent survey by Parasoft Corp., a Monrovia, Calif.-based provider of error detection and prevention tools, revealed that the Web sites of most Fortune 100 company are riddled with errors, with an average of one link error per 3.5 pages and more than 12 HTML errors per page.

Combine those errors with the inevitable site crashes and you get lost revenue. A survey by Zona Research Inc. estimates that e-commerce companies are losing more than $58 million a month from customers who won't linger at a site with slow-loading or nonloading Web pages. Without the help of IT personnel -- who furnish infrastructure support, systems planning and administration -- companies are likely to keep facing these problems.

To answer this challenge, some companies are going back to school to pluck fresh graduates, rather than trying to raid experienced pros from competitors.

Matthew Hollingsworth, president of recruiting firm, said companies used to hire more non-computer science majors and then slip them into the IT department later. When he worked in the consumer products division at Corning Inc. a few years back, Hollingsworth said he saw people who were technically oriented -- but not technically educated -- bumped from a department like human resources into an IT position.

"A lot of times companies would take a traditional manager and just put them in an MIS slot," he said. "They thought they could just teach them about computers." But things have changed in the last few years. "Now they're finding that they need people with technical skills," he said. "And they're definitely looking for computer science majors now to fill those MIS positions."

Part of the problem is initial public offering fever. People with master's degrees in computer science "are the hardest to find and hire, since most of those people have dreams of their own business," said Jeff Daniel, founder of the Austin, Texas-based recruiting firm

Daniel said some companies still prefer to snatch up new grads and train them in IT rather than recruit seasoned pros because the new kids on the block come to the business without any preconceived notions of how things should be done. He said his entire roster of clients, including Inc., Goldman, Sachs & Co., Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. and Trilogy Software Inc., favor this approach. Training programs, which can last from a few days to six months or more, give new employees lessons in a company's mission, value system and marketing goals. If a new hire works out, the cost of wages coupled with training, which can run to thousands of dollars, is roughly equivalent to hiring more experienced IT staffers, said Daniel.

While the demand for IT professionals increases, candidate quality has decreased, said Antoine Jenkins, director of recruiting at Sabre Inc., a Fort Worth, Texas-based travel technology provider. Sabre's solution is to pursue employee referrals and to train the less experienced.

"We're taking people with just a baseline of knowledge," Jenkins said. "Then we train them before putting them in the workforce. We have to augment our hiring with people that don't quite have it all and look at them as an investment."

SAS Institute hires students while they're still in school, then sends them to an eight-week "boot camp" training program to prepare them to work at the company, said Jeff Chambers, human resource director at the Cary, N.C.-based data warehousing software developer. Held in the training department at SAS's headquarters, the boot camp combines a structured curriculum of technical training with "techie bonding" experiences with one another and with the company's culture. Chambers said the program builds an esprit de corps among the boot campers: "They get to meet other people, get a feel for the company and get exposure to a lot of different areas in the company."

After the training is finished, the recruits decide which part of the company they'd like to be assigned to. The result is a 2.9% turnover rate in the IT department, which has about 300 staff members, said Chambers. In other parts of the company, the average turnover rate is 4%. "The boot camp inspires loyalty," he said, "because instead of hiring someone and throwing them into the company, we give them practical training and resources, in terms of getting to meet experienced MIS people they can call on with questions. It creates a positive impression."

Delivering on a promise of "great company culture" -- rather than "we'll make you rich" -- is a clarion call for IT, many recruiters said. George Johnson, vice president of marketing at job board, said that although the site features about 190,000 resumes from technical professionals, not all of those candidates will jump jobs for bigger paychecks.

"Technologists are always looking for a job, but they're only willing to move if it's the perfect match," said Johnson. "In the surveys we've done, we've found that money is not the most important thing; it's the working environment, what kind of challenges the company can give them, what technologies the company is working on."

IT people in general tend to prefer a more casual office environment, which prompts some of his clients to send in photos that feature all-window cubicles and to make promises of free soda and a pet-friendly workplace.

Of course, offering a compelling compensation package doesn't hurt. Jeanne Lewis, president of e-commerce site in Framingham, Mass., said techies come to the company because of name recognition, the assortment of technical expertise within the company, employee referral programs and, last but not least, because of the company's generous stock options.

"We think giving tracking stock . . . helps us compete for a workforce," she said. "It makes us competitive and then some." Detaching itself from its brick-and-mortar office supply retailer parent Staples Inc., plans to hire at least 200 people this year for e-commerce and IT positions.

Dot-com companies are bound to get the cream of the crop, said TechEmployment's Hollingsworth. "If companies are going to draw in high-level MIS professionals, they are going to have to offer a good package for them. Wages are higher for them, and the incentives and stock options are built in a little more," said Hollingsworth. Internet companies hold a bigger promise of stock option riches for techies.

Many top recruitment firms list $125,000 as a minimum salary for higher level, executive IT positions, although "the MIS manager title may be the most broad of any other title in the industry," said Holly Beeson, technical recruiter at Pencom Systems Inc., a recruiting firm in New York. With each company handling different technology, and having different managerial needs, an IT person in one company might have very different duties than one in another company. Whereas one IT manager may be responsible for juggling network administration and in-house databases, another may be handling a company intranet or an internal Novell network. "With that in mind," Beeson said, in Los Angeles, where she is a recruiter, "they can make anywhere from $75,000 to $140,000, depending on the scope of their responsibilities."

Phil Schneidermeyer, managing director of the Advanced Technology Practice at search firm Korn/Ferry International (KFY) , said that to recruit top IT personnel, company raiding is sometimes inevitable. To find people who may be ripe for a workplace change, Schneidermeyer has the following tips: "Look at Internet companies in transition, whether it's from the effect of a merger or acquisition, or something similar. You also have to look closely at the Internet e-commerce consulting companies and the more traditional Fortune 500 that have made an investment in the Internet."

Schneidermeyer said company raiding is common, and that anyone recruited that way will no doubt pull other IT talent with them. "You go out to look for one, but your expectation is that whomever you hire will bring in five to eight other members of his or her previous team," he said.

With the competitive atmosphere of IT recruitment, Schneidermeyer said some companies ask their top technology officers to sign contracts that head off potential raids, prohibiting them from reaching back and recruiting from the company for a specified period of time after they leave.

The shortage of tech talent and management to oversee the tech and the talent doesn't look to be letting up soon. But those on the front lines say that when recruiting for IT, you should make the offer sweet and tempting, but always keep your battle gear in place.

For more news on the Internet Economy, visit The Industry Standard.Story copyright 2000 The Industry Standard. All rights reserved.

Copyright © 2000 IDG Communications, Inc.

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