At a time when firms are increasingly looking for knowledgeable professionals to lead their technology efforts into the next century, Greenway Group consultant Paul Doherty offers a scathing rebuke to why the best talent is fleeing this industry.

Our industry is struggling to find and hold onto talent. At times, designers, managers, and production personnel seem to be involved in a perpetual revolving door. But nowhere is this more evident than in the Information Technology (IT) area of our businesses. We are losing our most valuable people that keep our businesses operating due to ignorance, low value perception and by being cheap. Other industries are picking up on the fact that we pay our IT people poorly and are raiding companies of all sizes for their IT personnel.

In the July 1998 issue of Fast Company magazine, Charles Fishman interviewed Ed Michaels, a director of McKinsey & Co. in Atlanta on the recent McKinsey study titled, The War For Talent. It was a yearlong-study that involved 77 companies and almost 6,000 managers and executives. The study reported that the most important business resource over the next 20 years is talent: smart, sophisticated businesspeople who are technologically literate, globally astute, and operationally agile. The results of this study are ominous, as the search for the best and the brightest will become a constant, costly battle with no finish line.

Hearing that talent is your most important business asset and then believing and acting on this is a difficult transition in perception to make. Mr. Michaels said, Over the past decade, talent has become more important than capital, strategy, or R&D. Think about the sources of competitive advantage that companies have. Capital is accessible today for good ideas and good projects. Strategies are transparent: Even if you’ve got a smart strategy, others can simply copy it. And the half-life of technology is growing shorter all the time. For many companies, that means that people are the prime source of competitive advantage. Talented people, in the right kind of culture, have better ideas, execute those ideas better–and even develop other people better.

Historically, AEC businesses have had people lining up at our doors. Now we’re having to compete aggressively for IT talent. If you are building your IT areas, the first step is to find talent. Nontraditional approaches to recruiting are emerging as AEC businesses need to convince IT talent that they will find a challenging and lucrative position in our industry. Signing bonuses, expense accounts, travel to computer conferences, flex-time and other incentives are being given to lure IT
talent, things that were unheard of only a few years ago.

There are four kinds of messages that the best people respond to.

  • Go with a Winner It’s for people who want a high-performing business, one where they’re going to get lots of advancement opportunities.

  • Big Risk, Big Reward The people who respond to it want an environment where they’re challenged either to do exceptionally well or to leave–where there’s considerable risk but good compensation, and where they can advance their career rapidly.

  • Save the World It attracts people who want a company with an inspiring mission and an exciting challenge.

  • Lifestyles These people seek companies that offer them more flexibility and better lifestyle benefits, such as a good location.

To keep the talent we already have, there is a changing landscape. In a way, we are involved in a silent battlefield in the war for talent. That battlefield involves people who have been at the same firm for three to ten years, people between the ages of 25 and 35. Most companies are losing more people in these ranks than they realize. And those people are often some of their best employees. When asked what they were looking for in deciding where to work, IT people answered, a great job in a great company, one that’s well managed, has terrific values, has a great culture. They also want headroom — a job where they can make decisions on their own, without having to go through a bureaucracy.

The stakes are high, and in certain cases, talent retention will be the determining factor between success and business survival. After all is said and done, your business depends on people, not just strategies.