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Industry Confronts Personnel Dilemma Using Unconventional Methods, Perks

January 1999
By Maryann Lawlor
E-mail About the Author

Shrinking supply, growing demand inspire companies to explore creative options.

The critical shortage of available technical talent has added a new wrinkle in the realm of proprietary information for corporations. Once reserved for the blueprints of jet fighter aircraft or new software programs, closely guarded secrets now include techniques used to attract the best and the brightest with education and experience in information technology sciences. In addition, the new corporate landscape is being shaped by policies and programs that encourage current employees to stay put, and congressional legislation is allowing more foreign workers to enter the U.S. work force.

Traditional recruiting approaches, including job fairs, newspaper advertisements and college campus visits, continue to flourish. However, these are being joined by extensive Internet use and aggressive yet attractive new methods, all in an effort to make a company stand out in a very crowded field.

Benefiting from all this corporate courting are information technology professionals who are enjoying unusual benefit packages, higher salaries and workplace flexibility. The downside to acquiring all these perks, however, is a labor force that must help battle the shortage war by working extended hours.

Several factors have contributed to the current unbalance between supply and demand, according to Tracey T. Staley, director of staffing, Lockheed Martin Corporation, Bethesda, Maryland. First is the growing influence of information technology in virtually every business area, increasing the number of opportunities for technical people. The age of the population also is shaping the shift, as the peak of the baby boomer generation passes mid-life and fewer people enter colleges. In addition, the first wave of the baby boomers will begin to enter retirement age at the start of the next century, leaving companies with fewer experienced workers and prompting predictions that the shortage will continue, she says.

The developing nature of computer science itself is adding to the scarcity. As technology and all of its peripherals become more advanced, course work is more difficult, leading potential students to consider careers in which they would use computers but would not be required to enroll in numerous mathematics or engineering classes. And, despite the explosion of computer literacy, computer work is still viewed by many as a “nerdy” career, Staley offers.

All of these elements have led to a 23 percent decrease in the number of computer science degrees awarded between the 1983 and 1997 graduating classes, despite a threefold increase in the number of computer science specialists employed during the same period, according to U.S. Department of Labor statistics.

With most companies as well as government agencies competing for this shrinking pool of available talent, information about specific effective recruiting and retention techniques has become data some companies are unwilling to share. But many corporate human resources personnel agree there are certain common focus areas. They also note that the same items that attract new employees help retain current workers.

“There is no big revolution between generations of workers in terms of the types of what they are or how they want to work. Young and old want the same thing. But the work environment has changed. Baby boomers expected to work for the same company for an entire career. New people want to work for the same company [for a long time] but they don’t expect to. Their attitude is, ‘I will work for you as long as it’s good for me personally,’” Staley says.

Recognizing this subtle yet very real difference, Lockheed Martin is focusing on being recognized as the “employer of choice” by both potential and present staff members. “We are making Lockheed Martin a company that employees with the skills that we need would want to spend a career with,” Staley says. To that end, the company offers competitive salaries, medical coverage and vacation benefits. The firm also provides flexible work schedules as well as technologies that encourage creative ways to meet customers’ needs.

Staley believes it is critical to technical employees to feel challenged and have responsibility for their own work products. The company not only offers employees the opportunity to grow professionally by providing training, but also allows staff members to work on a variety of projects.

The current state of the job market has forced firms to address issues once thought of as insignificant. Quality of life concerns have emerged as a critical difference between past and present corporate environments. Casual attire and flexible working hours are two such topics. Many companies now offer at least one “casual dress” day each week, with many going to all casual clothes days unless meetings are scheduled with clients.

Flexible hours have taken on several forms, from companies that allow employees to create their own schedules within set parameters to firms that have changed their entire work week.

Sanders, a Lockheed Martin company headquartered in Nashua, New Hampshire, instituted its 80 hours in nine days, or 9/80, schedule in June 1998. Although the employees did not request the change, company management chose to address the challenge workers were facing in balancing their work and personal lives.

Under the 9/80 schedule, the majority of employees work nine hours per day on Monday through Thursday and eight hours on Friday of the first week. During the second week, staff members work nine-hour days and have Friday off. The schedule applies to most departments; however, some areas such as security and testing continue to work traditional hours. On the Fridays when most company employees are off, one central office answers incoming calls from customers. Messages are then forwarded to the appropriate personnel for action.

The plan has increased the company’s ability to retain employees and helps it recruit new talent in a competitive market, according to Jonathan Murphy, director of human resources business areas, Sanders.

Before the plan was implemented, the firm surveyed employees to obtain their input, and a majority of the workers were in favor of it. Even with this type of support, the company only instituted the program on a trial basis. After six months, Sanders conducted another survey and 95 percent of the employees were in favor of retaining the 9/80 schedule, he says.

Robert Kennedy, manager of staffing programs, human resources, Sanders, adds that the program could only be adopted if the company could continue to provide an acceptable level of service to customers. To date, Sanders has received favorable comments from clients, and employees enjoy having 26 3-day weekends built into the schedule, Kennedy says.

He does not predict that the firm will incorporate additional programs of this type in the near future. However, Sanders also currently offers traditional benefits, including tuition assistance and in-house training, and is a member of the “Life Works” network. This referral service furnishes a variety of resources including information about elder care and child care. It is provided at no cost to employees.

Some companies have resorted to even more nontraditional benefits to attract and retain employees. USinternetworking (USi) Incorporated, Annapolis, Maryland, faced with competition from government agencies and a multitude of corporate headquarters in nearby Washington, D.C., appeals to the desire for a short commute and a luxurious lifestyle.

The firm, an Internet managed applications provider, opened last January and had a staff of only 24 people at the end of April 1998. It now boasts 350 employees with offices or data centers in California, Tokyo and Amsterdam.

Key to this rapid growth is the company’s concept of business in the next century, according to Brenda Woodsmal, vice president of staff services, USi. “Employees all share a belief in a vision, and that vision is that the future of the world is in the Internet,” she explains. And the employees share more than just the vision. As part of their employment package, they receive stock options, giving them a stake in the company’s success. “We are creating a pride in ownership, so energy, enthusiasm and pride are way up,” she says.

But USi’s benefit package features more than medical coverage and stock options. The company owns and maintains three boats and two jet skis and has ordered a sailboat. The craft are available for employees’ use, complete with snacks and soft drinks at no charge.

“One of the biggest draws in this part of the country is quality of life,” Woodsmal explains. In addition to the boat program, the company offers telecommuting, casual dress and regular company parties featuring an in-house band.

Training at USi is considered critical, and each manager is required to have a training plan for each of the people in the department because, Woodsmal says, lack of opportunities for personal growth is the single biggest reason people leave companies.

All hiring has been done without the assistance of placement agencies or sign-on bonuses. The company uses neither.

But one company has had great success finding technical talent by using money as a key draw. Litton/TASC, Reading, Massachusetts, pays $250 to applicants who are interviewed for a position. In addition, upon accepting a position, they are awarded a $2,500 sign-on bonus.

This is the first time in the company’s history that a stipend has been paid for being interviewed, according to Anthony C. Borghi, director of corporate staffing at Litton/TASC. “We are doing this because the types of people we are looking for have a lot of choices but not a lot of time. We want to show them how much we want them,” he explains. Interviews typically last five hours, so win, lose or draw, the company needs to remunerate applicants, he adds.

“The results of this effort have been extraordinary. We received about 2,500 resumes in 10 days. This is about 10 times the number we would have received using other methods,” Borghi says.

Although this financial offer may seem like an expensive alternative to other methods, in fact hiring budgets have increased in most companies, and Litton/TASC is no different. “It’s safe to say that over the last five years the amount of money spent on recruiting has at least doubled. I don’t think that it has tripled, but if the ratio of supply to demand doesn’t change, [then] between 1995 and 2000, it will triple,” he offers.

Litton/TASC also uses other recruiting techniques. Borghi says the company does some college recruiting; however, because the climate is different for a defense contractor, Litton/TASC does not invest in college programs as heavily as other firms. The company’s customers, he offers, are steeped in tradition and prefer people who have worked in the field for some time and are familiar with the business. This position may change during the next two years as the company continues to compete for government contracts that are under acquisition reform initiatives. The “sell price” for the firm’s services will have to be competitive, making employees with a lower hourly rate more attractive.

Lockheed Martin views visits to college campuses as a key aspect to its overall recruitment plans, according to Staley. “We are a high-technology company, and we have a high-technology approach on campuses,” she says.

The company sends representatives to colleges and universities to build relationships with the faculty and students and to get the word out about Lockheed Martin. “People think of Lockheed Martin as a defense contractor that only builds planes, but the company is actually very much into information technology. Aeronautics are more dependent on software engineering and not on aerospace engineering. A plane changes every 10 years, aeronautics change about every five years, but software changes every one to two years. Information and services are the fastest growing segment of the company,” Staley explains.

The shortage of available technical personnel is causing companies to accelerate their job offer programs. “If you’re not extending offers by September or October of senior year, you’ve missed the beat,” Staley says. The company also offers college students the opportunity to work as interns or cooperative education students, and many of these go on to full-time employment with the firm after graduation.

Referring to the company’s recruiting budget, Staley contends that additional funding is not necessarily being devoted to recruiting, but there is a difference in how and where the money is being spent to find new hires. Funds at Lockheed Martin are being refocused into job fairs, employee referral programs and the Internet.

And it is to cyberspace that many firms are turning in order to find the technical help they need. Numerous company web sites feature an employment hot button, and entrepreneurs have taken this opportunity to offer firms with openings and people seeking employment a means to find each other.

Michael Gilfillan, chief executive officer, The ComputerJobs Store Incorporated, Atlanta, is himself a college graduate with a degree in the management of information systems. After co-authoring a book about computer jobs, Gilfillan realized that the Internet held the potential to offer companies and computer experts the opportunity to find each other without time-consuming travel.

In May 1995, he launched a web site dedicated to bringing supply and demand together. The company now maintains five regional employment web sites. Currently, 650 corporate monthly subscribers use the service to list openings and find technical personnel. The sites receive between 400 and 500 new visitors each day, with between 40 and 50 people viewing the locations at any one time. Neither the company nor the applicant is charged when a person is hired through the site.

With several years of experience in the field, Gilfillan offers advice to companies working to keep employees and trying to fill technical positions.

“Environment is tops in the retention of people. There are two good examples. Let employees experiment with new toys. Technical people want the opportunity to learn and try new things. Training can be a double-edged sword. Training allows current employees to obtain new skills then get new jobs and leave. But training is important. Second, no cubicles! They are unappealing and no one wants to work like that. It takes away from the collaborative effort. These are technically skilled people, but they are also very creative people and need the brainstorming opportunities. Managers think of technical people as people who just sit in front of a computer all day, but they are really very creative and need a way to express that,” he says.

To attract new employees, Gilfillan offers this advice: “It sounds simplistic but advertise the job. Write a good description of the job. Companies are not selling the job by just describing the position. You need to sell the job. You have to be honest and say, ‘Hey, you’re going to work long hours, but here’s the good stuff.’ It could be tech parties every Friday or how often they’ll get paid. Gimmicks are good, but people recognize them as gimmicks.

“Realize that just because they’re good at the skills doesn’t mean they’re good workers. People who do the interviewing often don’t understand all the technology, so they think the people they hire have to be experts in the technology. But that’s not true. You just need people who are willing to work and learn,” he says.

Gilfillan predicts that the Internet will continue to grow as a means to find both employees and jobs. “More companies are relying on the web because it is more attractive. People looking for a job look at the job fairs and realize that they’ll have to get dressed up and drive to the location then find parking and so on. Their other choice is to just turn on the computer at home and look at all kinds of jobs all over the world right from there. The computer is the more attractive option,” he says.

The current shortage could last as long as 10 years, Gilfillan states. To assist companies in filling positions during this time, Congress approved legislation to temporarily increase the annual number of H-1B visas to 115,000 as part of the fiscal year 1999 Omnibus Appropriations Bill.

The program allows companies to bring in foreign-born skilled workers for a temporary, six-year stay in the United States. It includes protections to ensure that foreign workers do not displace American workers. The visas are granted only when a sponsoring company demonstrates that a U.S. professional cannot be found to fill the job.