Big salaries, bigger challenges: How to hire and keep the best tech staff

Getting the right team together is vital to making any project a success. CIOs share their tips for finding and retaining the best.
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor
CIO Andy Wilton: "When we see a skills shortage coming, we try to plan ahead to see how we can breed those skills internally or bring them in house."
Image: iStock
Finding and retaining tech staff with the right sorts of skills remains challenging for many organisations.

A survey from BCS, the chartered institute for IT, reports that 48 per cent of firms require additional and suitably qualified technology staff. Those gaps, meanwhile, are tough to fill. Trade association CompTIA claims that 68 per cent of firms have a "very challenging" time finding new IT staff.

When talent is so hard to find, how can CIOs attract graduates to the IT profession and continue to entice more experienced professionals to their businesses? And - just as importantly - how can technology chiefs keep their existing talent keen?

1. Promote your company and cast your net as wide as possible

First Utility CIO Bill Wilkins says IT leaders should do more than simply scour the market for potential workers. He says that a significant part of the interview process is selling the business and the IT department to the candidate.

"The first thing I explain to prospective employees is that we're not a traditional utility firm," he says. "We're not bureaucratic and slow. I tell people that we're an interesting mix between a low-cost airline and a retailer that uses data to create a great engagement platform."

Wilkins also advises CIOs to cast their nets as wide as possible. "Use all available channels," he says: the firm is making more use of social media and specialist recruitment firms. "We use all the agencies we can tap into in order to get high quality candidates."

The firm is increasingly casting its net across an international talent pool. "We already use offshore partners," says Wilkins, outlining how the firm draws on expertise in Belarus to help cover IT infrastructure concerns. "Because of the skills gap, we are now looking at creating our own offshore development centre in Eastern Europe."

Pay is also always important: "When we hire people, we spend time analysing the skill set we need and recognise that we'll pay as much as possible to get the right type of person into that role," he says.

"I'm not saying cost is no object but, generally, we're looking for capability rather than volume. We're willing to pay top quartile salaries for the folks that can make a difference to the business."

2. Think ahead, offer career paths

Andy Wilton, CIO at Claranet UK, is one IT leader who recognises that the battle for talent has led to upwards pressure on wages. He says that finding correctly skilled employees has been a lot harder in the past three years, especially in global centres like London.

As the economy recovers, and demand for IT staff increases further, he says CIOs face greater strains as even more businesses fight for the same pool of expertise. Some reports suggest that competition for talent means wages for some technology professionals have risen by a quarter during the past 12 months.

Wilton says the skills Claranet requires are often quite niche and in short supply, so finding the right staff and keeping them in-house can be challenging. He advises IT leaders to take a proactive approach.

"CIOs need to make sure they have the right skill sets and knowledge within the business, while keeping one eye on the market," he says. Wilton refers to his firm's own research, which suggests demand for data analysis and DevOps skills is set to increase significantly during the next five years.

"When we see a skills shortage coming, we try to plan ahead to see how we can breed those skills internally or bring them in house," he says. "Keeping up with the pace of change keeps us in business and achieving this means looking outside of the business for new talent and investing in the staff we've already got."

Wilton says experience suggests that technical staff tend to move around every two to three years and that technology-focused companies tend to face an attrition rate of 20 per cent. CIOs can fight these attrition rates by helping their staff to build career paths.

"While big-figure salaries will always have their appeal, money isn't the only consideration. In our experience, giving people a level of autonomy, responsibility and a healthy working environment can drastically improve loyalty," says Wilton.

3. Give people a big challenge to sink their teeth into

Richard Norris, head of IT and business change at Reliance Mutual Insurance Limited, is another CIO who believes in the benefits of a great internal culture. Opportunities, he says, are everything: "You need to give people the chance to do something interesting."

Norris joined the firm in May 2014 and has worked hard during the last year-or-so to create a strong technology team. He says that, in the modern business, the key to attracting and retaining IT talent is the size of the challenge.

"We had plenty to do when I took over in 2014," says Norris. "I was able to say to people in interviews that they were going to face a real challenge. Rather than just turn up and keep things running, I needed people that were going to come in and help me fix IT."

When Norris joined Reliance last year, the organisation was embarking on a change programme to turn its business performance around. As a mutual business, the leadership team had approached its members and outlined how it was keen to transform the company, including through the implementation of a new digital platform. Norris was charged with running the change programme.

"I needed people who could look at everything and question whether it was good enough," he says. "Once issues were identified, we needed people who could work out how things could change and how they would make improvements. That broad challenge has really given people the opportunity to feel fulfilled."

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