How to never lay off staff: Securian shows the way

Computerworld US's recent Best Places to Work in IT survey found its top contenders had one thing in common: an awareness of the importance of training

“In some form or other, our IT group has been around for 50 years,” says Jean Delaney Nelson, vice president and CIO at Securian Financial Group. “And we’ve never laid off an employee.”

In a fluid era marked by outsourcing and offshoring, those words are sure to grab the attention of IT professionals. And, once Minnesota-based Securian grabs someone it hangs onto that person. The financial services firm, which changed its name from Minnesota Life last year, boasts a 97.9% IT retention rate. Small wonder, then, that the 400-worker IT group ranks number 13 on this year’s Best Places to work in IT list.

Interviews uncovered a few secrets but also much common ground where employee retention is concerned. The keys are careful hiring, a commitment to promoting from within, tireless training and — perhaps most important — challenging projects that offer workers the chance to handle hot technologies. Great benefits don’t hurt, either.

It’s easy to tune out when top executives talk about all the effort they put into hiring the right people. But, our research indicates that Best Places companies do more than talk. For example, Securian says 95% of its present IT staff members were entry-level hires. Coupled with the company’s high retention rate, this statistic proves that it promotes extensively from within.

Anna Sullivan has worked at Securian for 12 years. A senior systems analyst, she says the company is tireless about staying current when it comes to technology. “I bet I’ve taken 50 to 75 training courses here,” Sullivan says.

Once you’ve got a sharp worker, one way to keep him or her is to let that person start making decisions right away. That’s a tip from San Diego-based wireless vendor Qualcomm, which ranks 23rd on this year’s list.

“We push a lot of decision-making down in the organisation, so people right out of school get involved,” says Norm Fjeldheim, Qualcomm’s senior vice president and CIO. As an example, he recalls how a technology team made up largely of junior staffers approached him in 2004 and suggested that virtualising the company’s servers would ease set up. In response, the CIO approved a $150,000 evaluation of VMware virtualisation products.

“We saw early success, so we kept expanding the programme until we, ultimately, put it in production,” Fjeldheim says.

“Now, 50% of our datacentre is virtual. We’ve saved over $3 million (NZ$4.9 million) on hardware alone, and we can set up a server in 30 minutes.” And this was all because some young administrators were intrigued by virtualisation’s potential.

Hiring-managers must also be careful not to underestimate the urge to build an empire when the larder is full. Securian’s Delaney Nelson says this has been a key to her group’s ability to avoid lay-offs.

“Some companies do huge staff-ups when the economy’s strong,” she says. “We don’t. We’d rather move gradually.” When Securian needs IT staffing, but is unsure for how long, it uses consultants. By the time Delaney Nelson’s team replaces a consultant with a full-timer it’s confident that the position will be needed in the long run.

Securian also encourages departments to borrow staffers from one another when one group is busy and another is slack. This is a reasonably trauma-free option, Sullivan says, because Securian uses a standard set of development tools.

“If I move to another group I know they’ll be using the same J2EE platform that my group is using now to develop a business-to-business e-commerce website for the financial services department,” she says.

Training and ongoing education are par for the course in Best Places IT groups. Interestingly, companies with standout IT retention rates don’t boast of offering hours of training per employee, or dollars for college courses.

Rather, their attitude is best summed up by WW Grainger’s Timothy Ferrarell: “When we have a job to do, and skills people need to learn, we’re going to get employees the training they need.”

Ferrarell is senior vice president of enterprise systems at the US$5.5 billion (NZ$8.9 billion) Illinois-based supplier of facilities maintenance products, which ranks number 78 on our list.

“We don’t have a one-size-fits-all rule for training; it’s based on company needs,” says Ferrarell.

And, because Grainger’s business is “all about moving boxes and logistics”, as Ferrarell puts it, the need for training is ceaseless. A few years ago, Grainger jumped into voice over IP, by setting up a network that seamlessly transfers customer calls to any of the company’s 400-plus branches.

More recently, Grainger threw the switch on a rollout of SAP’s enterprise software that SAP executives called, according to Ferrarell, “one of the largest, single-instance implementations ever to go live in one day.”

Naturally, a project of that magnitude requires extensive consulting, but, Ferrarell says, “Our bias is to do these things ourselves as much as possible. We want people who understand the business to do the IT work.”

Because 95% of its IT workers begin at the entry level, Securian is also committed to extensive training. In addition to using a corporate educator to learn soft skills, such as leadership and communication, the IT organisation actually has seven full-time people “who do nothing but train and develop IT associates,” Delaney Nelson says. New employees spend their first three months in an entry-level, application-development training programme. In addition, the minimal goal is two weeks of ongoing education per staffer, per year.

IT groups with great retention records also feature a host of team-building programmes and outings. But what these companies truly provide is nectar to technologists: a challenge.

“We’re constantly putting in new technologies where there’s a business reason to do so,” Fjeldheim says. “IT people love that challenge — they don’t want to be stuck maintaining 30-year-old technologies.”

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