Keep 'em on the farm

The problem of retaining highly-trained and sought-after specialists is one faced by many firms. So how can businesses hang on to their skilled employees?
Written by Fred Aun, Contributor

In the world of systems integration, no good deed goes unpunished. Just ask those frustrated business owners who've invested heavily in specialized training for skilled employees, only to see those employees take their newfound expertise and move on to greener pastures.

"Employees are just picking up and moving to the next paycheck,"

Will Korbin
Alliance Consulting

"It's a huge problem for us," says Norm Petereit, chief executive of Analyst Express Inc., a Cypress, Texas-based consultancy. "Today, if you keep a guy on board until the next project, you're lucky."

Petereit, whose company generates about $7 million in annual revenue, adds that once you lose a skilled employee, it's highly unlikely that he or she will pass through your door again.

Why? Because as independent consultants armed with know-how in bleeding-edge specialties, they can earn a lot more on a per-hour basis than they ever did as full-time workers. "I don't believe in anybody called a 'full-time employee' anymore," seconds Steve Jones, managing director for client vision at Spireknowledge Inc., a staffing and consulting firm in New York. Jones argues that the more highly trained the employee, the more peripatetic that employee will be.

The dilemma has reached the point, say industry observers, that many solutions providers are questioning whether it's worth it to build a multifaceted workforce or tackle projects that push the technology envelope.

Will Korbin, area VP for Alliance Consulting in New York, laments that while employees have come to understand the value of their skills in the marketplace, employers haven't wised up to the need to find creative ways to keep them on the farm. "Employees are just picking up and moving to the next paycheck," says Korbin.

Unfortunately, say human-resources experts, there is no painless answer. Those firms that rely on partnering in lieu of having all of the expertise in-house will wind up leaving vast amounts of potential revenue on the table, particularly as Web-based projects begin to span several months - or years.

One of the worst things a company can do, in terms of retaining people it paid to train, is to let the workers' newfound skills go unused. Having gone through the schooling, the IT specialists need to regularly flex their muscles.

"One of the things that's bad is if they give them training in something, and they don't let them use it on the job," says Mike Sullivan, owner of Cambridge, Mass.-based Advancement Alternatives. He also says employees tend to stay at companies that offer continual training opportunities, and not just one-shot deals. But Sullivan says salaries, benefits and job challenges - not the availability of specialized training - are the big factors in his clients' decisions about job offers.

"Training is not a big part," he observes. "They want more money, and they do want an upgrade technologically when they move to their next job."

Turning away work, as tough as it is for many integrators to swallow, is probably the least objectionable option, argues Edward Bell, CEO of CrossTier, a Fairfax, VA.-based e-business solutions provider specializing in Microsoft integration.

"Two of our top SQL Server experts are Microsoft MVPs. There are only 14 of them in the world ... These people are the specialists of specialists."

Edward Bell

Bell says he learned the hard way that discretion can be the better part of valor. Before becoming a Microsoft specialist five or six years ago, notes Bell, CrossTier accepted just about every kind of job, expertise be damned.

"We'd just take our smartest young programmers and tell them, 'OK, you need to learn how to program in Notes. It's Friday afternoon ... the project starts Monday,' " says Bell. "Inevitably, the projects were done half-cocked."

It also became a headache for the integrator. Those young programmers who were able to grasp new technologies on the fly soon became specialists and "got really disenfranchised" when they subsequently were asked to return to routine projects or drop everything and learn yet another new technology.

"That's when they left," says Bell.

CrossTier's solution was to cease trying to be a jack-of-all-trades and to set itself up as a home for Microsoft masters - employees who easily could earn more money as independents but who prefer to stay with CrossTier to be where the action is, alongside other Microsoft mavens.

"Two of our top SQL Server experts are Microsoft MVPs," Bell notes. "There are only 14 of them in the world ... These people are the specialists of specialists."

To keep them in the fold, CrossTier has created a "Top Gun" program, under which its senior specialists are given time to write magazine articles or books, speak to outside groups, and lecture at the company's own CrossTier University. Those are the kinds of opportunities, says Bell, that top-echelon employees would have if they were working in the field as independent consultants.

"As a result [of the program], they have a certain stature in the company," observes the CEO. He says the Top Guns encourage and support up-and-coming specialists within the company to become members of the exclusive club.

The fact that CrossTier employs some renowned Microsoft experts is yet another lure for would-be workers. "It's part of our recruiting strategy," notes Bell. "We say to prospective employees, 'You can listen to these guys speak on Fridays at lunch.' "

"The realization that by training people, they're more likely to leave, is something companies have to live with,"

Brian Daly

Naturally, Bell disagrees with the notion that training employees is a losing proposition. "Our philosophy is diametrically opposite of that," he says. "I absolutely believe the only way you keep employees is by constantly training them."

CrossTier not only pays for the training and testing but also rewards the successfully trained by automatically giving them $6,000 annual raises once they obtain certain certifications. "The last thing I want is to train these guys, get them certified and have them be disgruntled because they think they're worth more in the marketplace. You can't be unrealistic. You're creating a more valuable resource," says Bell.

Unisys chief information officer John Carrow has taken to the airwaves to spread his thoughts on retaining IT employees. Carrow recently appeared on a PBS affiliate in Philadelphia to discuss his position: Attempting to keep your best techies by merely dangling dollars is not good enough.

"We hear a lot about escalating salaries, lucrative stock options and other material perks as prerequisites for retaining IT employees," says Carrow. "However, that fixation on money minimizes and even trivializes a range of other factors frequently less tangible but no less important - a challenging work environment, opportunities for professional development, responsive and effective management, and the sheer satisfaction of participating in a high-performing culture."

Unisys claims its embodiment of Carrow's comprehensive approach makes for an "outstanding retention rate" for its IT employees. More than 1,000 people work in the Unisys IT department worldwide.

But even Unisys understands the danger involved in training employees for specialty products or technologies, particularly those that are not regularly used or required by the company.

"The realization that by training people, they're more likely to leave, is something companies have to live with," concedes Unisys spokesman Brian Daly. As does Bell, Daly says the trick is to know the business' core competency and bring in outside consultants for those one-shot, or rarely needed, specialty jobs.

"You determine [whether to train or not to train] by how much utility there is for that specialty within the company's business," says Daly.

Other consulting firms, such as Alliance, require employees who receive company-sponsored training to sign contracts obligating them to remain on board for specific periods of time.

The general feeling among integrators is that while this is necessary, it's no substitute for competitive salaries, bonuses, telecommuting options, and, above all, the opportunity to work on exciting projects, week in and week out.

Indeed, concludes Bell, most high-tech specialists are die-hard gearheads who, all things being equal, prefer the structure of a good corporate organization to the perils of the freelance existence.

"Some of our Top Gunners have been consultants and independent contractors who came back into the fold .... These are techies, and what they want to do is technology stuff," says the CrossTier CEO.

"They don't want to do payroll, health insurance, sell their work and figure the tax impacts. So what we try to do is create an atmosphere that is intellectually stimulating to them."

And, apparently, it's working.


Five tips to train 'em and retain 'em:

  1. Create specific programs that allow them to use, if not flaunt, their expertise. This involves giving them the time to write articles or books, or to deliver guest lectures.
  2. Fund employee training and certification programs, and give immediate salary increases to those who have completed these training programs.
  3. Focus on one (or, at most, a few) key specialties. This accomplishes several things: It means your employees get to surround themselves with other experts in their discipline, and it prevents them from getting bounced around among boring assignments.
  4. Have your employees sign contracts requiring them to stay with the company for a certain period of time after they've completed their training. This won't compensate for other HR failings, but it offers a little basic protection.
  5. To whatever extent possible, take on projects that will interest and challenge your people.

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