Mar 06 2008

Competing With the Bigs

Here's how to hire — and keep — the best IT staff.


Katherine Spencer Lee Executive Director, Robert Half Technology

With unemployment among IT professionals still relatively low by historical standards, businesses find it difficult to hire the highly skilled technical staff they need.


This can be particularly problematic for small companies that can’t offer industry-leading salaries and benefits packages. How can small-to-midsize businesses (SMBs) compete with large companies in the talent game? How can they keep their staff on board when career paths at small companies might not be as clearly defined?

First, let’s identify the skills most in demand. In a recent Robert Half Technology survey, CIOs from companies with 100 to 500 employees cited networking as the job area experiencing the most growth in the first quarter of 2008. That includes traditional LANs and WANs as well as wireless networks. Other hot categories include database development and administration, and applications and Web development. Employers are willing to pay a premium for professionals well-versed in the Microsoft .NET framework or who possess development experience in C#, eXtensible Markup Language, or Asynchronous JavaScript and XML (Ajax).

When it comes to attracting highly skilled IT professionals, familiarity and big budgets often give large, established corporations a hiring head start. How do you compete for the best employees when your reputation doesn’t precede you? Because job candidates are less likely to have strong preconceptions about SMBs, the way you present your company to potential hires can make all the difference.

To start, make sure your company has a clear identity as an IT employer, not just a business. What makes it a great place to work? What provides your employees with a sense of ownership? What can you provide that a big company can’t? Hands-on training? Or, how about tangible results on key projects? Don’t just rely on your own observations; solicit employee input about what keeps them engaged.

Don’t overlook other built-in advantages of small companies. For example, employees may work on a broader range of products, or even be able to propose new product or service offerings. They also may have a say in major decisions and work directly with clients. This level of autonomy can appeal to IT job seekers who may prefer a smaller environment. Small companies, where IT staff typically work in close contact with core business operations, are often the best places to hone skills. Be sure to communicate this attribute to potential hires.

After you’ve succeeded in hiring a skilled staff, focus on what you can do to build loyalty and retain employees. Salaries and benefits packages are important, but they’re only part of the equation. Employees who don’t look forward to coming to work every day are apt to leave, regardless of their pay.

That gives smaller companies another edge: Workplace improvements can be brought about through close manager-employee relationships, rather than a slow trickle-down from above. Here are some other key ways for small businesses to retain IT professionals:

• Keep an eye on going rates. Even if you can’t offer as much as larger employers, it’s important to know what the competition is offering and adjust your offers according to industry-standard compensation rates.

• Recognize efforts. A culture of gratitude can be just as important as monetary compensation. Make sure employees get credit for all outstanding efforts (not just obvious successes).

• Support work/life balance. In addition to programs like telecommuting and flexible scheduling, small businesses can be more nimble than larger counterparts when it comes to helping an employee meet a personal challenge. Treat these situations as golden opportunities to build loyalty.

These principles are more than just necessities in today’s tight IT hiring market. In any economic environment, the success of small businesses depends on hiring and nurturing the most talented employees available.

Katherine Spencer Lee is executive director of Robert Half Technology, a leading provider of IT professionals on a project and full-time basis. She has been with the company since 1995.

What CIOs Report

Company Size
Within your IT department, which single job area is experiencing the most growth? 100-249 250-500
Top 5 responses

Networking 18% 21%
Help desk and end-user support 13% 16%
Applications development 11% 16%
Internet and intranet development 13% 7%
Data and database management 9% 7%

Which of the following technical skill sets are most in demand within your IT department?

Windows administration (Server 2000 and Server 2003) 73% 76%
Network administration (Cisco and Nortel) 68% 74%
Database management (Oracle and SQL Server) 57% 66%
Firewall administration 52% 56%
Wireless network management 52% 53%

SOURCE: Robert Half Technology survey of 1,400 CIOs, December 2007