How Employers Try to Retain Tech Talent
By Jon R. Anderson
November 21, 2017
Share this page:
As soon as Scott Algeier hires a freshly minted IT specialist out of college, a little clock starts ticking inside his head.
It’s not that he doesn’t have plenty to offer new hires in his role as director of the non-profit Information Technology-Information Sharing and Analysis Center (IT-ISAC) in Manassas, Va., nor that IT-ISAC cannot pay a fair wage. The issue is Algeier is in an all-out war for talent – and experience counts. Contractors, government agencies – indeed virtually every other employer across the nation – values experience almost as much as education and certifications.
As employees gain that experience, they see their value grow. “If I can get them to stay for at least three years, I consider that a win,” says Algeier. “We have one job where it never lasts more than two years. The best I can do is hire quality people right out of college, train them and hope they stick around for three years.”
Tech companies present a different set of competitive stresses: competing with high pay, industrial glamor and attractive perks. Apple’s new Cupertino, Calif., headquarters epitomizes the age: an airy glass donut that looks like it just touched down from a galaxy far, far away, filled with cafés, restaurants, a wellness center, a child care facility and even an Eden-like garden inside the donut hole. Amazon’s $4 billion urban campus, anchored by the improbable “spheres,” in which three interlocking, multistory glass structures house treehouse meeting rooms, offices and collaborative spaces filled with trees, rare plants, waterfalls and a river that runs through it all.
While Washington, D.C., contractors and non-profits do not have campus rivers or stock option packages, they do have other ways to compete. At the forefront are the high-end missions in which both they and their customers perform. They also offer professional development, certifications, job flexibility and sometimes, the ability to work from home.
“We work with the intelligence community and the DoD,” says Chris Hiltbrand, vice president of Human Resources for General Dynamics Information Technology’s Intelligence Solutions Division. “Our employees have the opportunity to apply cutting-edge technologies to interesting and important missions that truly make a difference to our nation. It’s rewarding work.”
While sometimes people leave for pay packages from Silicon Valley, he admits, pay is rarely the only issue employees consider. Work location, comfort and familiarity, quality of work, colleagues, career opportunities and the impact of working on a worthwhile mission, all play a role.
“It’s not all about maximizing earning potential,” Hiltbrand says. “In terms of money, people want to be compensated fairly – relative to the market – for the work they do. We also look at other aspects of what we can offer, and that is largely around the customer missions we support and our reputation with customers and the industry.”
Especially for veterans, mission, purpose and service to the nation are real motivators. GDIT then goes a step further, supporting staff who are members of the National Guard or military reservists with extra benefits, such as paying the difference in salary when staff go on active duty.
Mission also factors in to the equation at IT-ISAC, Algeier says. “Our employees get to work with some of the big hitters in the industry and that experience definitely keeps them here longer than they might otherwise. But over time, that also has an inevitable effect.
“I get them here by saying: ‘Hey, look who you get to work with,’ he says. “And then within a few years, it’s ‘hey, look who they’re going to go work with.’”
Perks and Benefits
Though automation may seem like a way to replace people rather than entice them to stay, it can be a valuable, if unlikely retention tool.
Automated tools spare staff from the tedious work some find demoralizing (or boring), and save hours or even days for higher-level work, Algeier says. “That means they can now go do far more interesting work instead.” More time doing interesting work leads to happier employees, which in turn makes staff more likely to stay put.
Fitness and wellness programs are two other creative ways employers invest in keeping the talent they have. Gyms, wellness centers, an in-house yoga studio, exercise classes and even CrossFit boxes are some components. Since exercise helps relieve stress and stress can trigger employees to start looking elsewhere for work, it stands that reducing stress can help improve the strains of work and boost production. Keeping people motivated helps keep them from negative feelings that might lead them to seek satisfaction elsewhere.
Providing certified life coaches is another popular way employers can help staff, focusing on both personal and professional development. Indeed, Microsoft deployed life coaches at its Redmond headquarters more than a decade ago. They specialize in working with adults with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and can help professionals overcome weaknesses and increase performance.
Such benefits used to be the domain of Silicon Valley alone, but not anymore. Fairfax, Va.-based boutique security company MKACyber, was launched by Mischel Kwon after posts as director of the Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Computer Emergency Response Team and as vice president of public sector security solutions for Bedford, Mass.-based RSA. Kwon built her company with what she calls “a West Coast environment.”
The company provides breakfast, lunch and snack foods, private “chill” rooms, and operates a family-first environment, according to a job posting. It also highlights the company’s strong commitment to diversity and helps employees remain “life-long learners.”
Kwon says diversity is about more than just hiring the right mix of people. How you treat them is the key to how long they stay.
“There are a lot of things that go on after the hire that we have to concern ourselves with,” she said at a recent RSA conference.
Retention is a challenging problem for everyone in IT, Kwon says, but managers can do more to think differently about how to hire and keep new talent, beginning by focusing not just on raw technical knowledge, but also on soft skills that make a real difference when working on projects and with teams.
“We’re very ready to have people take tests, have certifications, and look at the onesy-twosy things that they know,” says Kwon. “What we’re finding though, is just as important as the actual content that they know, is their actual work ethic, their personalities. Do they fit in with other people? Do they work well in groups? Are they life-long learners? These types of personal skills are as important as technical skills,” Kwon says. “We can teach the technical skills. It’s hard to teach the work ethic.”
Flexible Work Schedules
Two stereotypes of the modern tech age are all-night coders working in perk-laden offices and fueled by free food, lattes and energy drinks. On the other hand are virtual meetings populated by individuals spread out across the nation or the globe, sitting in home offices or bedrooms, working on their laptops. For many, working from home is no longer a privilege. It’s either a right or at least, an opportunity to make work and life balance out. Have to wait for a plumber to fix the leaky sink? No problem: dial in remotely. In the District of Columbia, the government and many employers encourage regular telework as a means to reduce traffic and congestion — as well as for convenience.
For some, working from home also inevitably draws questions. IBM, for years one of the staunchest supporters of telework, now backtracks on the culture it built, telling workers they need to regularly be in the office if they want to stay employed. The policy shift follows similar moves by Yahoo!, among others.
GDIT’s Hiltbrand says because its staff works at company locations as well as on government sites, remote work is common.
“We have a large population of people who have full or part-time teleworking,” he says. “We are not backing away from that model. If anything, we’re trying to expand on that culture of being able to work from anywhere, anytime and on any device.”
Of course, that’s not possible for everyone. Staff working at military and intelligence agencies don’t typically have that flexibility. “But aside from that,” adds Hiltbrand, “we’re putting a priority on the most flexible work arrangements possible to satisfy employee needs.”