Retaining IT talent: 5 tips for better training opportunities

One of the best ways to retain employees these days is to focus on skills development and training – especially for IT professionals. Consider this expert advice
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CIO Digital Training

If the Great Resignation has taught us anything, it should be that when employees don’t see a future at your company, they will walk. According to a 2021 survey from Gartner, just 29 percent of IT workers worldwide intend to stay in their current roles over the next year.

The stats are even bleaker for some age groups. Only 16 percent of IT workers between ages 19 and 29 (the next generation of tech employees) plan to stick around, versus 48 percent of 50- to 70-year-olds (who will soon retire). As a result, IT leaders have grown increasingly desperate to fill seats.

[ Also read 3 IT hiring myths about generational differences ]

Large sign-on bonuses, splashy wellness benefits, and paying for interviews are some ways companies are trying to attract new talent, but those efforts are misplaced. Rather than investing so much in attracting new talent, leaders should focus on nurturing the employees they already have. One of the best ways to do this is through training and development opportunities.

Why skills development is critical

Workers crave professional development opportunities across industries, but that craving is especially powerful in IT. Research shows that more than one-fifth of Americans want their employers to invest in their training and development, but when you look at IT workers specifically, that figure jumps to 91 percent. Why are IT workers so keen on training and development?

[ Also read Quiet quitting: 9 IT leaders weigh in. ]

One reason is that there are no college degrees that can prepare you for the actual world of software engineering. IT moves incredibly quickly, and skills like Agile methodologies, continuous integration, and system integration can only be learned on the job. Tech evolves so rapidly that by the time these skills are learned, they could be nearly obsolete. The only solution to this whirlwind cycle is to constantly live in a state of improvement.

If you’re not providing an environment that supports IT workers in their continuous development, don’t be surprised when your IT team leaves for a company that does. After all, any time spent at a company unconcerned with enabling tech growth is a step backward in an engineer’s career.

But investing in training and development isn’t just good for individual workers. It also helps companies boost employee retention and spur innovative thinking.

Employees believe that their career prospects depreciate unless they’re constantly evolving. This is doubly true for tech. A skill development program sends the message that you want employees to thrive, which helps them see themselves at your company long term.

And when employees are engaged, well-trained, and proficient in their roles, you’ll see higher-caliber ideas emerge. Deloitte found that companies with a strong learning culture are 92 percent more likely to create unique processes and products.

Creating development opportunities for employees

When it comes to training and development, avoid a top-down approach. If your employees’ growth is constrained by what senior leadership finds valuable, you won’t get the results you seek. It’s your responsibility as the face of tech for the company to create a culture that supports and enables technological skills development.

Your perspective is unique from other executives who manage areas that aren’t constantly upturned in the wake of innovation. Use it to fight for your employees and get them the opportunities needed to grow.

5 essentials for IT professional development training

Unsure whether you’re doing enough to support your staff? Follow these guidelines to design exemplary professional development opportunities.

It's your responsibility as the face of tech for the company to create a culture that supports and enables technological skills development.

1. Allow staff to spearhead initiatives

While it’s good to foster growth opportunities, the real benefit comes when you enable employees to have ownership over these practices. Consider a community of practice (CoP); this is an excellent avenue for people to interact, learn, collaborate, and even devise organizational improvements.

Traditionally, employees need executive sponsorship to form a CoP, but try to stay out of the process until the finish line. Empower staff to create CoP proposals independently and then sponsor when you can.

Employees will likely create communities around various role-relevant topics like test automation, continuous delivery, and DevOps. However, even something as simple as a book club can be a great source of skill development. Allowing staff members to spearhead clubs, initiatives, or training opportunities relevant to them means that they’ll feel more ownership over the learning process – and that those lessons are more likely to stick.

2. Allocate resources to self-led learning

It’s counterproductive to give staff the option of creating a CoP without giving them the resources they need for the group to succeed. For example, if employees start a book club, provide a budget so they can purchase the necessary materials. You also need to give employees time to attend the meetings during work hours – bonus points if you let them read during the 9-to-5.

Additionally, consider giving every employee a training and development budget without making them justify how they spend it. Allowing employees to choose what they want to improve upon (and how they’ll do so) is the best way to make efficient use of your dollars because they know best what they need to improve and how they learn most effectively.

3. Provide technology education programs – with coaching

It’s a given that companies sponsor further education for employees. Many employers pay for certification tests and provide training resources. This isn’t a bad thing – we should keep up with new programming languages, tools, or frameworks. But the focus of your technical education programs should be on skills and practices.

Back to basics: How comfortable is your IT staff with design principles like SOLID and CUPID? Do your teams need further training on development practices like continuous integration and test-driven development?

It can be tough for engineers to master the skills necessary to view work in such small chunks, but IT leaders are uniquely poised to understand this pain point. Building up practical learning opportunities and other training resources necessary to overcome such setbacks is essential to creating a team that has the proper credentials not just on paper but also on the job.

4. Leverage internal coaching opportunities

The tech world is teeming with experts, many of whom are already on your staff. Assign managers and other senior leaders to areas of expertise (e.g., agile processes, customer interviews, etc.) and empower them to coach the next generation of IT workers. When you have on-staff experts providing training, you’ll develop a culture of constant learning and growth.

5. Consider adopting an agile mindset

Can you truly say your workers have done this – or are they just pressured to do agile, cutting corners and using scrum in its place? Some aspects of the job aren’t teachable through a book or certification knowledge. Mentorship is a great way to sniff out "fake agile.” Real agility requires trust, vulnerability, and communication. A certification can’t teach that, but a coach can.

In the third quarter of 2021, 31 percent of IT workers were actively job searching, and that trend has hardly slowed. IT leaders are scrambling to stop the tidal wave of resignations, but to improve employee retention, think less about flashy perks and more about rich development opportunities for employees.

[ Learn how CIOs are speeding toward goals while preventing employee burnout in this report from Harvard Business Review Analytic Services: Maintaining Momentum on Digital Transformation. ]

Aaron Bruce is a Developer at Synapse. He has over a decade of technical experience spanning many industries, including healthcare, financial services, tourism, hospitality, and more. He leverages that experience daily to empower the engineering teams at Synapse Studios to drive success for themselves and their clients.