Everyone is feeling the pinch as the IT worker shortage worsens. Positions go unfilled; projects are delayed or shelved; prized technical employees leave, wooed by any number of suitors.

Human resources professionals and hiring managers frantically investigate new ways to hire and keep employees who have key technical skills. A recent survey of the membership of the American Management Association (AMA) found that over 82 percent of respondents find retention a serious or very serious issue and the Information Technology Association of America predicts that over 800,000 new IT positions will go unfilled this year.

Training managers might wonder, “What does all of this have to do with me?” The issue of retention may be complex, but the answer to the question is not. Training is particularly relevant to the issue of retention. In the AMA’s 1999 Retention: Challenges & Solutions survey skill-enhancement issues were shown to be the key retention strategies in use today. Of the top 10 strategies used by businesses to retain employees, seven were training related, including the top four.

“Fifty years of research support that learning and growth are of paramount importance for job satisfaction. Every age group—from baby boomers to generation Xers—lists learning and growth opportunities as a top reason for keeping a job,” said Sharon Jordan-Evans, a nationally known workplace consultant and coauthor, with Beverly L. Kaye, of Love `Em or Lose `Em: Getting Good People to Stay.

Getting tech talent on board
Kanbay, a Chicago-based IT development company with 800 employees worldwide, encourages training from day one. Their 15 college hires for this year are attending a four-week Web development course that will lead to their certification.

“The certification is good for them and good for us,” said Jean Cholka, Kanbay’s vice president for human resources. “The certification is a great addition to their résumé, plus our clients want certified consultants working on their projects.”

Generally, when offering training as a recruitment incentive, technical instruction for skills specific to the new job is tackled first.

Guaranteeing employees training time is another popular approach.

“Traditionally, many people don’t get the level of training they want from their jobs,” said Tony Wells, founder of Knowledge Development Centers (KDC), headquartered in Columbus, OH. “Nortel, one of our clients, has a corporate directive in place guaranteeing each of their 75,000 employees worldwide 10 days of training per year. At KDC, we promise prospective employees 15 days of training their first year to help get the best people in the door.”

Some large software companies, including Microsoft, have offered pre-hire training and evaluation to people from all walks of life to lure them to a technical job, especially technical support positions.

“Students completing the course very successfully will be offered a job. Those who don’t do quite as well still get $2,000 worth of training for free,” Wells said.

Keeping your key IT people
A survey conducted by authors Jordan-Evans and Kaye for their book asked over 3,000 workers to list the top reasons they stay with their employers. Career growth, learning and development topped the survey.

Replacing technical employees can be an expensive proposition, in terms of both time and money. Kanbay uses the four-week Web development certification course and other training to reward high-performing employees. They also make Internet-based training in technology and business skills available without cost for all employees to use during off-work hours.

“We publicly recognize those who complete courses with a certificate and some type of branded clothing reward, such as a golf shirt, to demonstrate our commitment to learning and encourage employees to keep their skills current,” Cholka said. Kanbay provides standard tuition reimbursement benefits and also reimburses employees for up to $200 in work-related subscriptions annually.

Retraining workers knowledgeable in older technologies is a viable alternative for many companies.

“We’ve had clients bring in employees with 10 or 15 years of experience on traditional mainframes and train them in current hot areas, such as Web development, e-business, or business-enabled technologies,” Wells said.

Providing training in new areas means keeping workers already acquainted—and happy—with your company’s practices and philosophies.

“Re-skilling lets employers take advantage of existing loyalty. In this job market, you are nearly always better off hanging on to the employees you have,” said Jordan-Evans, who along with her coauthor, has other retention articles, ideas, and tools at their website, Keep `Em.

Getting started
Cholka advises that if you’re considering adding training opportunities to your compensation package, be pragmatic and look very closely at what the business needs.

“You can spend a fortune on training. It has to meet the goals of your company before you invest time and money,” Cholka said.

“Look at the roles people in your organization hold and what you want them to take on. Consider what training they need to be successful,” Wells added.

Needs assessment is an essential first step in implementing any new program. Once goals are outlined, do research to find the training that best meets those needs.

“Remember that training plans need to be individualized,” Cholka said. “All of your employees are starting—and will end—at different points. Some need help with time management or writing skills, others will be better served focusing on technology first. You can’t mass apply training.”

Jordan-Evans adds that “managers should ask their people what they need and want to learn. Do benchmarking too, see what the competition is training in.”

Finally, look at the cost of training vs. the cost of turnover.

“It’s a no-brainer once you run the numbers. Figure you’ll have to spend two to four times an employee’s salary in total replacement costs. Whatever you spend in training should be far less than that,” Jordan-Evans concluded. “That has to impress the higher-ups.”

Karen Cangero is the author of two books and numerous articles—many focusing on the Internet and online issues. She has completed graduate work in education and counseling and has several years of experience in public and private education.

Do you have a skills development plan at your company? How do you use training to keep your best people working for you? Send us an e-mail with your strategy for retaining the best talent at your company.