It's the Opportunities, Stupid

Think IT pros are greedy? Perhaps a bit. But the real key to keeping them from leaving doesn't involve money.

In iT, you're either going forward or backward - there's no in-between. Information technology folks who are moving forward - learning new skills, taking on stretch assignments and building their careers - are satisfied in their jobs. Those who are unable to get the training they want or who lack opportunities to take on challenging new assignments say they're unhappy because they feel they aren't working to their full potential.

That's the main message of this year's Annual Job Satisfaction Survey, and it comes with a troubling coda: More than half of the 575 respondents said their overall job satisfaction has decreased over the past year. So it seems that management isn't getting the message.

A systems analyst at an outsourcing company says he feels stuck in a support role that offers no challenges and no future. "It's a big headache to work with it, and I'm burned out," he says.

He'd like to move on to development, but he lacks the necessary skills and his company won't help him get training. "I'll have to do it on my own," he says - and you can picture him heading for the door.

A customer support manager at a new-media company says she's overlooked and underappreciated. "Once you're with a company for a while, you tend to get pigeonholed in your current responsibilities, and they forget that you may have other talents or abilities," she says. "That's where I am now. I feel underutilized."

These folks aren't alone. More than two-thirds of the IT workers surveyed said they aren't working to their full potential, and more than a quarter expect to leave their jobs within the next year.

But here's how it feels on the flip side: Howard Clodfelter, a senior applications analyst at Denver-based software firm J. D. Edwards & Co., says his company gives him both ample training and the opportunity to use that training on new projects. "I have all the things I need to do a good job, and that feels good," he says.

Technical people aren't afraid to work hard - very hard - if the project is stimulating and the technology is challenging.

The technology leader on a high-speed, high-pressure e-commerce project at a manufacturing company says the opportunity to work with cutting-edge technology in a project that's making an important contribution to the business more than compensates for the pressures of tight deadlines and killer hours.

"Even though it's more hectic than what they're used to, everybody I've met over here is so thrilled to be here, they wouldn't go anywhere else," he explains.

It doesn't always take bleeding-edge technology to keep people happy. A clear sense of career progression may do the trick. For example, a program manager at a government contractor was getting near the end of her rope when a new opportunity turned her around.

"I've been promoted into a new position, and I have more responsibility and feel more challenged," she reports. "I like what I'm doing, and I'm not bored or feeling underutilized."

These are people who feel they're working to their full potential, but unfortunately, only one in four of our survey respondents said they feel that way.

A Happy Band

Despite frequent dissatisfaction with individual situations, the survey group is overwhelmingly happy with the field and the people with whom they share it. Nearly nine out of 10 said they're satisfied with technology as a field of work.

More than two-thirds are happy with their relationships with both clients and peers at work, and many said their colleagues are a main source of satisfaction on the job.

"The people are my favorite part," says a systems manager at a large insurance company. "There's a lot of teamwork, a lot of brainstorming, a lot of support."

The ability of IT team members to work well together clearly affects both retention and productivity. For example, the director of network services at a state government agency says his supervisor has invested heavily in team building. The result has been not only a top-performing team, but one that values each member and perseveres despite below-par salaries.

"We get a lot of recognition for the work we do," he says. "Everyone's treated with respect, and everyone's ideas are wanted. None of us is here for the salary. We're here for the satisfaction of knowing we do a good job."

Managers fared worse than co-workers in employees' eyes. Approximately half of the respondents are satisfied with their managers, while approximately one-third said their bosses need improvement.

Erika Muller, a network engineer at LAN Associates in Babylon, N.Y., has experienced both good and bad situations. She recently left a company where she says she felt management left her "floating in the ether" all the time.

"I was floundering around, and when I asked for guidance, I never got any," she says.

At her current workplace, she explains, "we have real management instead of people who say they're managers but don't manage anything. Managers here stay in touch. They expect accountability."

For example, she says, "my manager will ask what I did at the client site, how it went (and) whether I need any other tools or help. Basically, there is somebody here who cares."

The Business Connection

Clearly, IT people care about the business and identify strongly with business issues. Approximately two-thirds said they understand the business mission and the issues in their industry. While it's important to them to be involved in the business, they are about evenly divided between those who perceive that they can influence the company's success on a day-to-day basis and those who feel they can't.

A systems analyst at a manufacturing company says he's very pleased with his current assignment, which involves rotating through various business units. "I get to see different facets of the company, not just from a systems perspective but from a process perspective," he says.

On the other hand, employees who don't feel that they have a strong connection with the business are less satisfied.

"We aren't actually part of the business," laments an IT coordinator at an agricultural products maker. "We're not what makes money, so if cuts come, new initiatives are put to the side."

Time and Money

Flexible hours seems to have become a mainstay of IT jobs, with nearly two-thirds of the survey respondents reporting satisfaction with the degree of flexibility they have at work.

The customer support manager at the new-media company describes it as her most important job benefit. "If I need to come in later or leave early, it isn't a matter of punching a clock," she says. "There's a good trust level, and people just make it up over time."

But many IT workers would like more. Specifically, 40% of the respondents reported that they're dissatisfied with their inability to telecommute.

Interestingly, base salary doesn't appear to be a major issue, with nearly half of the respondents reporting that they're satisfied with their salaries and only about 12% saying they're very dissatisfied.

But there are issues that involve money and performance that clearly need attention. Slightly more than half of the respondents reported dissatisfaction with the amount and frequency of bonuses, as well as the relationship of pay to performance.

"I'm pleased with my pay," the customer support manager says, adding that she's actually thinking about negotiating to trade an upcoming raise for more time off to spend with her family.

But she has some problems with the way money gets distributed at her workplace. "I think others here with less experience are making more, so I'm somewhat dissatisfied about that," she says.

Mounting Stress

Given the level of dissatisfaction with various issues, it isn't surprising that stress is pervasive in the IT workplace. Three out of four respondents reported that their jobs are stressful or very stressful, and more than half said their stress levels are going up.

On-the-job stress seems to relate at least as much to people's sense of hitting career walls as it does to the infamous IT workload, however. While approximately 20% cited workload as the chief factor contributing to stress, about 30% cited lack of career development or inability to use current technology.

The IT coordinator says he's stressed by his company's failure to use newer technology. "We sit back and wait for everybody else to try it first," he says. "It's frustrating."

He says he'd be more likely to change jobs for better technical and career opportunities than for more money, and that puts him in the mainstream of respondents. Though salary was the standard answer respondents gave for leaving their last jobs, nearly three times as many complained about either lack of training, advancement or challenges.

The message from this year's job satisfaction survey couldn't be clearer: Help them grow or watch them go.

Copyright © 2000 IDG Communications, Inc.

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