Hanging on to staff

In these days of skill shortages, retaining staff is more important than ever. What tips do IT managers have on preventing high turnover?

You’d have to be living at the back of beyond not to know there’s a skill shortage in IT (although some of my Auckland colleagues no doubt think that, living in Dunedin, I do live in the back of beyond).

Opinion differs as to how serious the shortage is, but the fact remains that it’s a hassle finding new staff. This week I spoke to three IT managers about how to prevent high turnover.

All agreed money isn’t everything, but concede it’s one place to start. If you’ve got high turnover (sounds like some sort of disease doesn’t it?), you should check out whether your salaries are in line with those elsewhere in the industry.

NZI IT director Roger Martin says his company gets one or two external salary surveys each year so it knows it’s paying the market rates. If someone is going to offer huge amounts of money you can’t always compete, but at least you’ll know whether you’re in the ballpark. He says for special projects (like Y2K work) you can make retention payments to people to stay a certain amount of time — but those are rare.

Bonuses are another option but that idea doesn’t go down well with Mighty River Power IS manager Peter Bridges.

“I have mixed feelings about whether bonus schemes really do work to keep people on staff. They quickly become an expectation … and get treated as part of their salary,” Bridges says.

Putting the dollars and cents aside, both Aspac Vacations IT manager Richard Sell and Bridges believe that providing career progression (opportunities and training) is as important, if not more important, than providing high pay.

“If you offer a dead-end job you might as well recognise that and plan for a high turnover,” says Sell. “Maybe think about outsourcing or using contractors, or entry-level people who you know are probably going to move on anyway.”

Sell says training incentives can be as simple as a luncheon to discuss XML, or as intensive as an academic course. On top of all this, you have to have a good work environment say the IT managers. New Zealand can’t match many of the salaries being offered overseas, so it helps if companies can offer a place that’s an exciting place to work.

Sell says things like whether people enjoy their day or feel appreciated might not seem like much in isolation, “but put them together and they turn out to be quite influential”.

Martin says many of the ways of retaining staff are cultural – there’s no quick fix. He recommends ensuring staff understand where they fit into, and contribute to, the business. At NZI this is done through the business planning process.

“People can see how the job they’re doing fits in with the overall business plan.”

He also believes people should know they can make organisational changes in the IT department if needed.

Sell likes to give staff interesting mini-projects in addition to employees’ main jobs because it helps with motivation. And he says even small things like letting people know when they’ve done a good job can go a long way.

“The IT industry is quite stressful. You take a lot of flack and are dealing with problems that you often don’t have control of. You get knocked when things go wrong so you need a pat on the back when it goes right.”

Office parties and functions can also help with staff morale. Martin says people at NZI tend to organise social events and he believes this should be encouraged.

So how do you know if staff are happy? Sell says he knows by a “gut feel”.

“Look at people and see how much they’re laughing or have a smile on their face. Do they enjoy their work or are they going around down at mouth? How many petty squabbles are going on?”

Martin has regular interviews with staff — as often as every three months — so he’s got feedback both ways. And between times, his door is always open for staff to air problems.

The cost of employee turnover is huge – not only in terms of recruitment costs. Sell says a lot of knowledge is lost when someone leaves.

“When something breaks the guy who’s been around for a few years says ‘we had that happen six months ago — I know where the problem lies’. The new guy just stands around like a stunned mullet and doesn’t know where the problems lie.”

It can take months or even years to train someone to the level of the person who has left, so the company loses productivity.

And productivity tends to go down once someone starts working out their notice. Sometimes that person will be negative and that negativity can spread to other staff.

Send email to Kirstin Mills.

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