The search for high-tech talent

By Joyce Hampton
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 04/10/2001

The demand for IT professionals, already hot, is about to boil over.

Recruiters thought that once the Y2K problem was over, the need for high-tech workers would diminish. But the opposite is happening. High-tech projects that were delayed because of the bug, are now on the front burner. And everyone is looking for skilled people to do the work.

“The recruitment issue is a huge problem — not a small problem — a huge problem,” says recruiter David Perry, of Perry-Martel International. “In Ottawa in particular, it’s about to become unbearable.”

Perry has been monitoring economic indicators that signal changes in the recruitment market. He says that when housing becomes tight, it’s a sign of impending labour shortages. In Ottawa’s case, the situation borders on the ridiculous.

“We’re down to seven apartments — in the whole city. And that was two weeks ago,” he says.

Housing has actually become a recruitment tool. At Alcatel (formerly Newbridge) in Ottawa, new IT recruits are put up in fully furnished hotel rooms at a cost of $1,800 a month. The firm used to provide the hotel service for one or two weeks while the new-hire found an apartment. Now things can drag on for months. But if you’ve found the right person for the job, it’s “a drop in the bucket,” says Alcatel’s recruitment manager Carolyn Gill.

High-tech workers know they’re in high demand, and the good ones are well-versed in the language of stock options, bonuses and dividends. They come in demanding sophisticated compensation packages and employers are paying them.

“Six or seven years ago you had to explain to candidates what stock options (you could offer them),” says Bruce Linton, president and co-founder of WebHancer. Today, he says, they tell you.

One Ottawa-based engineer says his colleague is jumping ship to join a new firm, leaving behind $1 million in stock options at his old firm. “He wants to make big money,” the engineer says.

When a million-dollar salary becomes small potatoes, most firms are priced out of the game, so they scramble to find a different playing field on which to compete.

And — hint — that “different playing field” no longer has to do with foosball tables, beer fridges and casual dress. Young people got tired of those accoutrements a long time ago.

So if you can’t afford top compensation and they don’t care about toys, what’s left?

Stability and long-term financial viability, say recruiters.

Ross Hamilton, the vice-president of recruitment at Delano, a high-tech firm in Ottawa, calls it having a good story.

“It has to be a really attractive story that illustrates the company’s financial viability,” he says. “Here’s our company, here’s where we think we’re going, here’s why we think we can lead in the marketplace.”

A lot of high-tech companies are here today and gone tomorrow. The IT superstars are turning away from the flashy start-up firms and are looking for firms with more stability. Less talk, more action.

One thing that candidates find reassuring is what Hamilton calls the firm’s “blood line.” In other words, if the firm’s founders have a good track record, high-tech workers are more likely to take them seriously.

“Most start-up companies say ‘we think we can make next month’s payroll but we’re not sure,’” says Hamilton. IT workers have learned how to tell if a company is likely to make it or not, and the good ones aren’t going to work for a flash in the pan.

“They are much better prepared for their careers and the business world than I was when I came out,” says Hamilton. “I’m just amazed at the difference.”

While finding good IT people is still the number-one problem (with retention running a close second), managing them is getting closer to the top of the list all the time.

A recently released study from consulting firm Hewitt Associates puts “managing IT staff” at the top of the list, even behind “finding good IT staff.”

It’s a problem that was just waiting to happen because, almost by definition, IT superstars are leaders, not followers. If they were followers, you wouldn’t want them. But as leaders, they’re hard to rein in.

“You don’t need to be managing them,” says Hamilton, “you need to guide them. Coach them.”

The managers who last are the ones that give the employees some room to work, have respect for their employees and command respect technically. And, if you’re always at them about handing in their vacation schedule on time or submitting receipts for every single expense, don’t expect them to hang around.

“If you get caught up on that, you’re kind of missing the point,” says Linton. “If these people want to rip you off (on expenses)… let them.” It’s cheaper to give them $40 for a book that turns out to be personal rather than business-related, than have to look for a new systems analyst.

Linton says it’s also key to make corporate goals transparent to every employee. Each person should have a good understanding of the overall project goal, as well as how their piece of the puzzle fits in.

“I should be able to walk around and ask pretty well anyone ‘what are you working on and how (is the client) going to use it, and how?’” says Linton.

It’s fine to know how to manage IT people, but how do you recruit a manager who is technically savvy enough to command respect from the other engineers, but wants to take on the non-technical aspects of being a manager?

You don’t, says Linton.

“It’s more of an issue of natural selection… evolution,” he says. In any group of workers — even high-tech workers — a natural leader emerges. All you do is wait for that to happen, and then offer that person a promotion. As long as you don’t bog that person down with all kinds of nit-picky managerial duties and paperwork, they’ll probably accept the new responsibilities.

“They don’t mind doing the paperwork on deliveries and design specs. What they don’t want to do is track vacation days,” says Linton.

But someone has to track vacation days. Who?

“That’s where HR, finance and payroll come in,” says Linton.

They take the paperwork away from the IT people and give it to HR. The forms get filled out correctly, and everyone’s happy.

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