Hard work without the gimmicks: Four tips to find and keep the staff you want

Is there really a skills crisis? It depends on your perspective, according to those in the know.
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor

Struggles to find the right staff can be down to the market - or to the employer.

CIOs believe they are burdened with the greatest technology skills shortage in a generation - and the challenge of finding and keeping great people is only getting bigger.

Almost two-thirds (65 percent) of CIOs believe a lack of talent is preventing their organisation from keeping up with the pace of change, according to recently-released research from Harvey Nash and KPMG. The global survey found the number of CIOs who believe the skills gap affects business responsiveness has risen 10 percent since last year.

So why do IT leaders believe the skills gap is such a concern, and how can businesses attract and retain skilled technology professionals? ZDNet asked the experts for some best practice advice.

1. Engage with and then embrace talented outsiders

All the evidence points to a looming technology skills crisis, yet former CIO turned digital advisor Ian Cohen believes the real issue is an outdated corporate view of recruitment and retention. "There is no lack of talent," he says. "There are plenty of talented people and great companies out there. The problem is that they don't want to work for you, and certainly not on your terms."

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    Cohen says CIOs and other CXOs must make it easier for talented staff to find a home in traditional blue-chip businesses, even if placements are on a short-term basis. He says executives must also find new ways of working with smaller, agile, and innovative companies who cannot be ranked, rated, and engaged through traditional procurement processes.

    Rather than being singularly focused on the recruitment and retention of people, Cohen believes the new executive focus should be on how to identify, attract, and engage talent. Executives should embrace talented outsiders, such as entrepreneurial individuals, and they should learn how to work with startups. "If you engage, you'll find good people and great companies," says Cohen.

    "Why should we try to shoehorn people into roles that don't suit them based on an outdated view of retention? If you have a great engineer, and can't offer them the stimulus and challenge they need to grow, then help them leave. It's a great way to replenish the wider pool of talent. If you're going to focus on retaining anything, then centre on the knowledge that comes from new ways of thinking. "

    2. Make your organisation an attractive place to work

    Poli Avramidis, CIO at the General Council of the Bar, is another IT leader who believes the nature of the skills gap can be overstated. There can be issues for CIOs who are looking for specialists in proprietary systems; executives who stick to well-known applications should not have a problem with recruitment.

    Avramidis says the problem for CIOs looking to attract talent is often more closely related to pay and benefits. "A lot of companies fail to appreciate the role played by the physical location of their office," he says. While some organisations can struggle to attract talent due to the need for a long commute, Avramidis faces a different type of challenge.

    The General Council of the Bar is the professional association for barristers in England and Wales, and is located near Holborn in central London. "There's huge pressure when it comes to attracting great talent," says Avramidis. "The City is a mile away and the finance organisations can provide big financial rewards."

    Skills challenges, therefore, are often less connected to market conditions and more closely related to specific business issues. "CIOs must work with their board colleagues to make their organisation an attractive and enjoyable place to work," says Avramidis.

    3. Focus on hard work rather than gimmicks

    Mark Ridley, director of technology at Reed.co.uk, says some CIOs are in a more fortunate position than others, particularly if they work for a powerful brand. He believes there is a skills crisis in key areas, such as big data and analytics, and filling any skills gaps will take more than a series of trendy gimmicks.

    "Beer and pizza in the evening doesn't make your firm a fantastic place to work," he says. "You have to work hard to make your brand attractive. When I speak at events, people often come up to me at the end and say they didn't know we had such a big focus on cloud, agile, and innovation. But how do you let potential candidates know that your business provides an interesting place to work?"

    Some high-profile brands like Facebook and Google are renowned for their innovative cultures. Yet Ridley acknowledges it can be tough for traditional businesses to develop a more creative sense of their brand, and attending graduates recruitment fairs can help. Reed.co.uk also runs evening meet-ups, where people can come and learn about how the firm uses agile development.

    "We have to work hard on our brand," says Ridley. "Having said that, our approach has paid off. You need to have a sense of curiosity to be successful in modern data science. We've found some fantastic data scientists at a time when people with these kinds of analytical abilities are really tough to find and attract."

    4. Understand how the right culture gives you an edge

    Brad Dowden, CIO at recruitment specialist Airswift, says the skills gap comes down to specifics. At the macro level, there could be a lack of talent in certain areas, particularly if a new technology emerges. Such a gap is then filled as people see the opportunity and start to train in that skills set.

    "As the technology becomes mainstream, more companies look to implement that approach," he says. "That's when the challenges start to emerge. These talented IT professionals in the market can then become in high demand and the cost to employers goes up."

    The skills gap that emerges, says Dowden, is directly related to commercial realities. Companies that are not prepared to pay big wages for rare talent will struggle to find the IT skills they need. "It's a cycle - there is gap for certain skills," he says.

    "In many cases, you can get the talent if you pay the money. If wages are consistent across the board, then other factors can really come into play. In-demand professionals will then look for the opportunities that get them excited. Not all technologists are money-oriented; they want to help solve problems and they want a great working environment. The right culture can give you an edge."

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