Patience and Persistence Are Key

By Tony Kontzer  |  Posted 08-28-2009

The Delicate Balance of Recession Staffing

About 18 months ago, when Medtronic CIO Mike Hedges saw signs that the economy was headed into a prolonged downturn, he took a step to protect his company's future.

Hedges started reaching out to future IT workers at universities throughout Minnesota, where the medical technology provider is based. He did presentations about IT at Medtronic, telling students how the company manages IT projects or detailing the importance of security in a regulated industry. He even arranged student visits to the IT department to see his team in action.

While Hedges hopes these steps will ultimately keep talented IT professionals flowing into his department, his goal is more general. "What I realized is, in the Minnesota area, everyone knows Medtronic, but no one knows Medtronic IT," says Hedges.

Hedges, who manages a staff of 1,200 with an IT budget of $400 million, says he believes that casting Medtronic IT as a forward-thinking, entrepreneurial environment can help in attracting the best and brightest. "You want to excite them about not only the traditional IT, but also where you're going with IT in terms of innovation and helping to spur the growth of the company," he says.

That kind of aggressive recruiting approach may seem out of step with the times, as legions of IT workers find themselves unemployed, flooding the market with a sea of potential employees the likes of which haven't been seen in years. But Hedges recognizes what many CIOs may be overlooking: that now is an ideal time to position your IT department as a desirable place to work, a move that might provide a critical edge when the economy rebounds and competition for talent is fierce again.

See also: Retention: Your Most Important Recruitment Priority?

In the meantime, however, Hedges and his peers must balance efforts to prepare for better times with strategies for filling the few positions they're hiring for now. Unlike past years, when employers scrambled for talented workers who could write their own tickets, today the hiring power rests with the employer.

But that doesn't mean hiring has gotten easier; in fact, in many ways it's gotten more difficult. With so many IT professionals looking for work, IT staffs running lean and increasing pressure to maintain a laserlike focus on delivering business value, CIOs have to take special care to ensure that they're making the right decisions when they get opportunities to hire.

Finding the Right Recruitment Recipe

Finding the Right Recruitment Recipe

With so many candidates to choose from, it's like searching for a needle in a haystack, and CIOs must be increasingly wary of the wildly varying quality of candidates as they sift through the huge piles of incoming job applications. Consider that Hedges is getting as many as 50 applications for positions that used to attract 10 to 15 applicants, and you get a picture of the minefield a CIO must navigate to find the right person. "It's like going into a major department store," says Kasey Bevans, CIO of Balfour Beatty Construction. "You get overwhelmed by the massiveness of it all."

To add to the challenge, the tenuous state of the economy is not only limiting the salaries and perks companies can offer prospective IT workers--it's forcing CIOs to explore new (read: cheaper) ways to attract the talent they need, such as Hedges' university outreach.

See also: Do's and Don'ts for IT Staffing

In Bevans' case, that has meant cutting back on her reliance on recruiters, whose services she says are unnecessary with so much talent on the market today. Instead, she's focusing on personal recommendations, especially from contractors who've worked with numerous companies and thus can point her toward top talent in hard-to-find places. "In many cases, we're going out there and trying to find people who already have a job, and steal them away," says Bevans.

Bill Rogers, CIO of printing press maker Goss International, has opted to keep his ear to the recruiting scene during these challenging times, even as he relies on recruiters less to meet his current needs. Rogers says he wants to stay abreast of what kinds of skills are most available, where the shortages are and what the recruitment trends are looking like, as he fully expects time to be of the essence once the floodgates open. "When the market comes back and I need people, I believe I'm going to need to [hire] rapidly," Rogers says. He says he believes that having those connections with recruiters--whom he'll use again more heavily when things improve--will help him get to the best people before they're snatched up.

Meanwhile, Rogers is trying to take advantage of a market rich with IT talent by shoring up specific areas of perceived weakness, like security, where he lacked an expert in choosing products, evaluating threats and administering security procedures. He was able to find someone he felt he could entrust with his company's entire security strategy. "I spent all this money on anti-virus and anti-spam and all sorts of other things," Rogers says. "I just needed someone to pull that all together and make sure we're spending money in the right areas." As a bonus, thanks to the economy, he was able to find the level of expertise he sought at a discount.

Patience and Persistence Are Key

Patience and Persistence Are Key

While that hire has worked out for Rogers, Hedges cautions against being lured by the discounted salaries some candidates are willing to accept. He says falling in love with the low bid can be a trap, which is why he zeros in on the attributes he values above all else: flexibility, positive attitude, great communication style and, of course, technological savvy.

Finding people with those traits, regardless of price, can help an IT department maintain its focus on growth and innovation throughout the recession, rather than merely performing help desk and maintenance functions. "Growth and innovation are going to be critical to keeping your company where it needs to be when things improve," Hedges says.

Hedges has found that one of the best sources of people with his desired qualities is the contractor community. Because there are fewer of those gigs to be had, growing numbers of IT contractors have begun looking for permanent work. And because they've tended to work in so many different situations, accumulating experience with multiple companies and technologies, they offer the jack-of-all-trades capabilities that can be so useful in an IT environment driven by business results.

Regardless of a CIO's chosen strategy, finding the right IT talent in today's cluttered market requires persistence, diligence and a clear idea of what an organization's needs are. Ultimately, though, the most successful strategies will not only yield good hires today, they'll also ensure that companies emerge from the recession with the strongest possible team in place and positioned to attract the best candidates during the inevitable upswing in the economy.