IT retention: 5 strategies for becoming a talent magnet

If you have an IT role to fill, you know how fierce the competition is. Consider these five retention levers to attract and retain IT talent
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Just how competitive is today’s market for tech talent? Some companies have resorted to buying up other firms to get their employees.

That trend is fueling an increase in M&A deals, but it isn’t necessarily going to solve the problem at hand – especially if the leadership doesn’t know how to hold on to people once they’ve “acquired” them.

While these companies may be viewing M&A through the lens of talent acquisition, people aren’t things you can just buy up and deploy like assets. As “The Great Resignation” has made abundantly clear, if you want to keep great people and get the full benefits of their talents and skills, you need to inspire, engage, and develop them.

[ What are today's candidates looking for? Read IT talent: 6 ways job expectations have evolved. ]

With the pandemic accelerating many companies’ digital transformation efforts, technology executives now have their sights set on ambitious, strategic initiatives designed to drive the business forward and help steel it against future disruptions. But all of those plans will be at risk if you can’t attract and retain the talent you need to deliver on them.

That’s why, says Sabina Ewing, global CIO and VP of business and technology services at Abbott, the only way you can successfully lead the business today is to become a talent magnet. By making talent the number-one pillar of your strategy, you can build the kind of differentiated employee experience that makes people want to not only work for your organization, but also grow and stay there.

In my experience, there are monumental differences (and results) between CIOs like Ewing, who recognize that talent underpins all of the other pillars, and those who make talent their fifth pillar. The justification is “It’s in my overall strategy” but in reality, it never receives real attention, mindshare, and intentional investment.

5 ways to retain IT talent

Here are five practical ways you can build a talent magnet brand.

Use all your retention levers

I reached out to industry expert Will Markow, VP of applied research and talent at EMSI Burning Glass, who shared five levers that you can pull to increase retention:

Pathways

Employees want to know: Is there a pathway to advance and grow within the organization, or will I have to go elsewhere to find that? Do I see a future for myself here? Am I learning?

“Just giving people the room for growth is huge,” Markow says. And in many ways, this is the most important lever. EMSI Burning Glass data shows that retention rates of disruptive tech workers sourced internally vs. externally are practically identical, both hovering around 50 percent after two years. This means increased internal mobility likely leads to increased tenure.

In other words, if you give people pathways for advancement by investing in their development, they’ll be more likely to stick around.

Purpose

Now more than ever, people want to know that they’re making an impact and working for a company with a clear vision that aligns with their own values and goals. As an organization, you must be thoughtful about communicating the “why” of the work and how it connects to the broader mission.

This is key to the development of your talent brand. Ambitious people want to work for ambitious firms, as Markow points out, adding, “If they see that they’ll have the opportunity to work with new, emerging technologies or do big, ambitious things, then they’re going to want to work for you.”

Think about what you need to do to signal that you are an ambitious company, even – or maybe especially – if that hasn’t been the market’s perception of your company historically.

Now more than ever, people want to know that they're making an impact and working for a company with a clear vision that aligns with their own values and goals.

Place

Now that remote is the norm and work is no longer tethered to the office, you can hire people from anywhere, and that opens up a much broader talent pool for you to consider. It also means you can give people the opportunity to work in an industry, field, or function that might not have previously been an option in their location. That can be a huge selling point for your talent brand.

But even if everyone is local, you can bolster your talent brand by being more flexible about when, where, and how people get their work done. Futurist Bob Johansen predicts that the workplace of the future will cover the spectrum from physical offices to the metaverse. With employee expectations changing, talent magnet brands know that providing more flexibility, even if it’s just a few days a week, will help them retain good people longer.

[ Read also: 4 metaverse tools that tackle workplace collaboration ]

Peers

The workplace community is just as important as the physical place. Many employees have left their jobs over the past few years because they decided that life’s too short to work in an environment they don’t enjoy and that doesn’t challenge them.

[ Read next: IT talent: 3 tips to kickstart employee career development ]

Smart people want to work with people they can learn from and who bring out the best in each other. This is why being a talent magnet is as much about engagement and development as it is about attracting new talent. In addition to creating a learning culture, talent-focused leaders incentivize people to identify problems that they can then solve together as a team.

Pay

This is perhaps the most obvious lever, and it’s increasingly important as poaching from coastal employers has driven up salaries. Especially in today’s market, if you’re not paying enough, people have plenty of options for finding better compensation elsewhere.

But pay isn’t the only thing, and in many cases, it’s not even the most important thing. Many of the other levers are more instrumental in terms of what a particular employee is looking for and what you can influence as a leader. As talent expert Dr. Beverly Kaye says, you may not be able to compete on compensation, but you can compete on culture. You can create a learning culture where people know they can grow. You can be intentional about building pathways between skill-adjacent roles.

Understand the skills DNA of your workforce

“We often will talk about skills being the DNA of the workforce because that’s really the atomic level of a job,” Markow says. “Jobs are combinations of skillsets bundled together in different ways, and they’re constantly changing, similar to the way DNA mutates. Understanding how the DNA is changing – how skillsets are evolving over time – is essential, because building a future-ready workforce is a journey, not a destination.”

When it comes to technology jobs, those mutations are happening faster and faster. But before you hire, take inventory of what you have to get a clear picture of the capabilities that might be right under your nose. In addition to bolstering your talent brand, it can be much less expensive and faster to reskill, upskill, and grow your existing talent than to hire from outside the organization.

This may require you to adopt a new mindset about what the “ideal candidate” looks like. EMSI Burning Glass data shows that two-thirds of disruptive tech workers are sourced from different occupations than the one they are hired for. “Machine learning, cloud computing, and cybersecurity all have over 500 different skill-adjacent roles that you can upskill and source workers from to expand your talent pipeline for these hard-to-find skillsets,” Markow points out.

That’s a perfect example of the value of inventory over intuition, especially as the competition for talent heats up. Things are changing too quickly today to rely on your gut when it comes to these decisions. As the foundation for your talent brand, a good solid skills inventory will illuminate the dark and support every strategic workforce planning endeavor you want to achieve, from attracting talent more efficiently and effectively to retaining the talent that you have by knowing who to invest in and how to help them grow.

“Without it, you’re really grasping at straws,” says Markow. “Maybe you get lucky, but probably you don’t.”

[ Get exercises and approaches that make disparate teams stronger. Read the digital transformation ebook: Transformation Takes Practice. ]

Dan Roberts
Dan Roberts is CEO of Ouellette & Associates Consulting. In this role, Dan leads the firm that has been known since 1984 for “Developing the Human Side of Technology.” His team has helped more than 3,500 IT organizations build a world class culture, a high-performing workforce and a differentiated talent brand.

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