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4/18/2011
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Mobility, ROI Driving IT Hiring At SMBs

As smaller employers begin cautiously wading back into the labor pool, they're starting with IT roles that have a clear-cut link to the bottom line, according to IT staffing firm Modis.

Mobile application experience headlines the top trends driving IT labor demand at small and midsize businesses, according to Jack Cullen, president of IT staffing firm Modis.

As companies define and refine their mobile strategies--and as the economy continues to shake off the dust it collected during the downturn--the need for developers, security experts, business analysts, and other mobility skill sets has increased at SMBs, a trend that Cullen said is likely to gain steam in the coming months.

"This is the area I think we're going to see a lot more ramp-up as the year goes on," Cullen said in an interview. "It seems to be one of the predominant questions, sitting with a lot of the CIOs and the levels right below them: How and what else are we doing from a mobility standpoint?"

Cullen said his firm is currently seeing post-recession IT hiring pick up in general at SMBs. Workers with enterprise resource planning (ERP) experience--and especially SAP skills, according to Cullen--are also on the talent wish-lists of smaller companies, as are SharePoint architects. Cullen said there has also been increased demand for traditionally in-demand roles such as Java and .NET developers and network administrators.

Regardless of functional area, Cullen said that most of his firm's clients are focusing on tech jobs that produce a quantifiable return on investment for the broader business. "Companies are looking at what's really feeding their business, what's really feeding their revenue," Cullen said. "Those are the areas that are getting most of the attention right out of this recovery."

Temporary and contract hiring is currently greater than full-time demand, according to Cullen, but the latter is starting to catch up. "[Temporary staffing] is clearly outpacing the demand for full-time hiring, but demand for full-time hiring every quarter seems to get better."

After a prolonged period of tabled tech projects and related hiring freezes, Cullen said that some businesses are moving cautiously on employment decisions even after the headcount is approved. But workers aren't necessarily waiting patiently by the phone. "The clients' hiring behavior is a little bit slower than the pace of the market right now," Cullen said. "This isn't the time to be too aggressive on what you want to pay for talent, and you really need to take a look at hiring process and make sure you're not too slow, or you're going to lose talent and you're going be hiring your second, third, or fourth choice."

Speed is certainly an area where SMBs can gain an edge in the hiring process--smaller companies are often less likely to get tied up with red tape. But SMBs that want to compete with their big business competitors for top IT talent might go broke trying. "There's always someone out there willing to pay more, and IT talent is fickle," Cullen said.

Taking a broader view of hiring packages can help level the playing field with deep-pocketed employers--and possibly create an advantage for SMBs over their direct competitors. "IT people like other things--it's more than just the dollars," Cullen said. He lists among the areas where SMBs can sweeten their job offers while controlling costs: Flexible scheduling, telecommuting, learning and cross-training opportunities, and project input. All can help with retaining IT pros long-term, too.

"In IT, talent is very, very important. There's a big difference between superior talent and mediocre talent," Cullen said. "How creative can you the employer be for that employee you seek? If you're going to be in a fairly rigid environment, very structured environment--then I think you're going to have to offer top dollar. If you want to get away from top dollar, I think some of the other creative approaches are required."

Emphasizing a technology-driven business culture is another area where SMBs--regardless of their industry--can make themselves more appealing destinations for top IT talent. That could mean anything from embracing new tools and applications to encouraging employee innovation that isn't necessarily in the job description. "I don't think it's a huge surprise why everybody really wants to work for a Google or an Apple--it's like a tech magnet with everything they offer," Cullen said. "The tech workforce loves that creativity."

Smaller businesses might not have enterprise-sized budgets, but Cullen believes they can apply similar creative principles to become more attractive to IT talent. "I think it's the excitement of the project, the technology itself, the tools that they'll be able to work with, the flexibility. And obviously, the money's got to be in the ballpark."

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