Canadian companies using creative techniques to attract top IT talent

In today’s fiercely competitive hiring environment, Canadian companies are coming up with creative strategies to attract and keep the best IT talent.

Whether it’s incenting  staff to poach skilled friends currently working for competitors, or offering telework facilities, businesses are doing whatever it takes to attract highly skilled professionals.

“Organizations are definitely feeling the pinch,” says Terri Joosten, CEO at CareerDoor Inc., a Toronto-based firm that helps employers identify and recruit hi-tech professionals.

The market today resembles what it was two years before the dot-com bust, said Joosten.

Canadian firms, she said, want to take full advantage of what the Internet has to offer. And that’s creating new opportunities for IT professionals.   

However, for prospective recruiters, Joosten believes several factors are converging to make the situation very challenging.

These include: the shortage of IT graduates and an employment rate that’s at a 30-year low.

When you factor in baby boomers leaving the workforce, there simply aren’t enough people to fill those vacated positions, she said.

Another industry insider echoes these views.

Fewer people are entering the growing hi-tech market and more people exiting it, noted Igor Abramovitch, a manager with Robert Half Technology at the firm’s North York, Toronto branch.

He said the survey of chief information officers (CIOs) recently done by his firm confirms this.

Fourteen per cent of the CIOs polled in that survey plan to add IT staff and three per cent anticipate personnel reductions in the second-quarter of 2008.

The findings have been presented in the latest Robert Half Technology IT Hiring Index and Skills Report.

Robert Half Technology provides IT consultants and staffing services on a project by project, or full-time basis.

Abramovitch says that the IT hiring market in Toronto has remains strong and in an increasingly competitive environment, “companies won’t have much choice but to look for alternatives.”  

What are these alternatives?

They “go beyond headhunting and putting an ad in the newspaper,” according to author, entrepreneur and leadership coach Jim Welch.

Welch writes and speaks extensively on how to recruit and retain good employees.

He works as a consultant with various large companies developing such strategies. While he would not specify which companies are using what strategies, he provided an overview of the most effective techniques.

“The unique thing about IT is that it’s close knit and self contained.”

He said many employers are using financial incentives to motivate  existing employees to bring new talent into the company.

If the person recommended is hired, the employee is reimbursed.

“You get a [monetary] reward for recruiting,” he said.  “If the person referred stays for more than 24 months the employee may get a bonus.”

Some companies have fairly structured financial incentive program, with bonus levels clearly specified.

Businesses are also tapping into the power of social networking sites to find the people they seek, said Abramovitch.

It’s a strategy his company also uses.

Two out of every three executives polled by another Robert Half survey – Are you connected? — believe that professional Web sites such as LinkedIn will be used more often within the next five years.

One in four said social sites will become more useful in attracting talent, 15 per cent mentioned video resumes and two per cent mentioned Second Life, a Web-based 3D virtual world where users can socialize, connect and create using voice and text chat.

“Organizations are becoming much more aggressive in finding and attracting technology workers,” says Joosten, “Retaining staff can be even a bigger problem.”

While compensation is definitely important, Abramovitch says flexibility and personal growth opportunities are also essential.

Yet another Robert Half survey – Staying Power – made this abundantly clear, he said.

“In April we polled CIOs on what they think is the best way to retain IT staff. Twenty-seven per cent said compensation, 21 per cent said flexible hours, 17 per cent said providing opportunities for professional development.”

Welch agrees, noting that businesses are offering employees more flexibility than ever before.

“More and more companies are using flexibility for retention,” he says, “Employers are focusing more on the results and less on the hours of work.”

Joosten says offering unique benefits and creating work-life balance is key.

“Many young developers don’t like waking up early in the morning but will work late into the night,” she said, noting that companies that can accommodate these preferences tend to retain them.

“Let them work in teams. Offer them training or new technology to work on. Create a fun work environment for them with after work parties, free lunches and other perks. In short, make your people feel good about where they work.”

Another direction many companies are embracing today is the idea of working remotely.

“Working from home is much easier than it used to be, and employees can come into the office for meetings as needed,” said leadership coach Welch.

“This helps in creating a better work-life balance,” which in turn produces loyal employees who are more likely to stay with the company.

Another technique Welch offers up in his new book Grow Now has to do with empowering employees.

He cites and example.

When an IT employee – or team – develops something new for the company, he recommends allowing them to make the presentation to senior executives..

This ensures that they “directly receive credit for their work.”

One key challenges to IT employee satisfaction is the major disconnect between managers and IT professionals with regard to how they view their role in the company.

Such a disconnect was discovered by a Network World a survey recently released by Strategic Counsel, a Toronto based research firm, and commissioned by Microsoft Canada

Seventy-six per cent of C-level executives polled said they see systems upkeep and maintenance as an IT professional’s key task.

Although nine in ten respondents said that IT executives should be involved when the company is making a strategic move, 69 per cent of C-level executives still see IT as ‘reactive’ as opposed to ‘strategic’ or ‘innovative.’

“One of the best ways to retain [IT specialists] is to expose them to new technology platforms in effect developing their skill sets,” says Welch.

“What’s unique about IT professionals is that they have to stay on top of a multitude of new technology and that it changes daily,” explains Abramovitch, “You have to stay on top of it which is probably why one of the criteria in retaining workers is offering personal development opportunities for them to keep updating their skills.”

The survey also found that up to 80 per cent of the IT professional’s time is utilized for routine maintenance.

This doesn’t correspond with the career aspirations of the student respondents, 77 per cent of whom said they intend to look outside of Canada for fulfilling employment.

That may be more challenging than they think it is, suggests Joosten, who notes it isn’t as easy to cross the border these days in search of work.

Prior to the year 2000 there was a big ‘brain drain’ – many American companies were granted  H1B visas by the American government to make it easier to recruit foreign workers.

“U.S. jobs were not only paying more money but were offering the opportunity to work on bigger, better and newer technologies. When the ‘dot-com’ bust came, H1B visa allocations were reduced by the U.S. government.”  

The CareerDoor CEO noted that in IT there’s a lot more contract work available because it is more project-based.

Many IT people really enjoy the project development side versus staying on afterwards only to maintain and tweak the system. They’re not all looking for full time work.”

She said IT professionals – far more than those working in other fields – are really into building their portfolio.

“If they feel pigeonholed and are not allowed to expand beyond their platform they’re more likely to leave.”

 “More companies are being inventive in order to take advantage of what’s out there.”


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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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