Tech jobs: How to recruit and retain the best IT workers

Finding and keeping the right people is always a challenge: here's how some top business leaders approach recruiting and retaining tech staff.
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor

Video: Top IT jobs and hiring trends for 2018 listed in Tech Pro Research survey

Developing a strategy to attract, retain, and develop the best IT workers is a challenge for nearly every organisation.

One-third of UK IT executives believe 2018 will be more challenging than last year in terms of recruiting new workers, and a further 12 percent anticipate a significantly harder hiring environment, according to IT professional association CompTIA. It's an even tougher story in the US, where 57 percent of executives believe the IT skills gap is growing.

Building IT skills for the long term

Dave Perry, IT director and CTO at the UK's Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA), says his organisation has created a multi-pronged approach to attracting and developing talent. "It's a topic I could talk about passionately for a long time and we're doing a wide variety of things," says Perry.

Activities focus on multiple age ranges and capabilities: the DVLA is running a code club for primary school children in Wales. Forty schools took part in one recent initiative and produced 60 software applications. "The aim is to get children interested," says Perry, who adds DVLA intends to operate more clubs in the future and will be running a similar programme in secondary schools this year.

The organisation is also investigating how apprenticeships can be used to help develop the next generation of school leavers, undergraduates, and post-graduates. Perry says the first cohort of twenty graduates have just completed a DVLA-funded computer science degree. Other students are currently progressing through their studies.

Once employed, the agency ensures all staff receive a minimum of an hour's computer-based training every week. These training programmes -- which are hosted by a range of providers -- cover various skills, including agile and cloud techniques.

See also: Special report: IT jobs in 2020: A leader's guide (free PDF)

"We also run classroom-based learning and individual development, where specific capability is targeted," says Perry. "We look at where our technical roadmaps are heading and we run skills assessments and development plans for individuals. We want to ensure that our people maintain a high level of competency."

Perry says the basic lesson is the skills challenge does not have to be intractable. As a further proof point, the DVLA is currently working alongside the Department for Work and Pensions to pilot the UK government's digital pay framework. "Where there's difficult skills to acquire, we can pay enhanced rates to make us competitive," he says.

"We were looking for some network engineers and we were struggling to find them. Post-pilot, we went out looking for 12 engineers, we had more than 100 applicants and we filled all the roles. I expect us to be able to compete for skills, not just with other government organisations, but with every private institution in the UK."

The enterprise view: senior executives must get involved

Juan Perez, CIO at UPS, says the logistics specialist takes a proactive approach to capability development. He says the firm recruits actively at the college level and runs a "very effective" intern programme. As many as 200 individuals joined the firm during last summer's internship initiative. Perez also took part in the engagement.

"I listened to some of their ideas and the quality of the 14 or 15 projects that these graduates worked on is outstanding," he says. "I think senior leadership needs to be involved in all areas of the business, whether that's at the very top, with developers or by engaging with interns. Those interns become a pool of talent that we draw on to fill our entry-level positions."

Development is also a work in progress for newly-acquired talent. Perez says he strives to find opportunities for the best and brightest to advance within the IT organisation. "It's particularly important once someone has worked for us for two to three years, as we need to maintain their interest and their desire in working for UPS," he says.

Perez says he and his deputies aim to give up-and-coming individuals challenging assignments that keep them connected to the company. The firm is pushing pioneering developments in several key areas, including mobility, big data and advanced analytics.

"I expect workers in our IT organisation will continue to see great opportunities for their own growth and development," he says. "I want UPS to be a place where our people continue to enjoy working on challenging assignments and projects, and where they ultimately feel they're making a difference in terms of the way the business works on behalf of its customers."

Perez says data capability remains a key challenge. IT leaders are bombarded by stories about the importance of data scientists and analytics experts. He says increasing numbers of universities are starting to offer entire degree programmes based on these areas. Yet Perez issues words of caution, suggesting big data remains about an evolving area.

Download now: IT jobs 2018: Hiring priorities, growth areas, and strategies to fill open roles

"CIOs and their business partners must think very carefully about what types of skills are important and which are going to provide the most value to the company in the long term," he says. "We're working hard at that capacity challenge and changing from the traditional approaches to building technology. I expect us to be much more flexible in terms of the systems we build."

Listen to staff to keep them engaged over time

Brian Franz, chief productivity officer at Diageo, says firms must work hard to, not only attract talent, but also retain talent: the company runs surveys and provides regular opportunities for its workers to talk about how they're doing and feeling.

"We've had thousands of comments back from employees through that approach and through the different round table and town hall events that we run internally across the world. It's been really good. We respond and their sentiments feed into how we drive change across the organisation," says Franz.

"We're trying to preserve all the good things we have around our culture but we're also keen to drive a more cost-conscious approach, so we look at things like effectiveness and efficiency in everything we do. We want to improve productivity and re-invest that money to help us grow the top line."

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