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IT Talent Retention Myths: Projects Don't Rule

InformationWeek's annual IT Salary Survey reveals surprises about how much IT pros value leading-edge tech projects, great bosses, and prestigious employers.

Conventional wisdom holds that a surefire way to keep IT pros happy is to put them on cutting-edge projects.

That conventional wisdom collides with reality, found in our annual InformationWeek US Salary Survey (registration required). We asked (among other things) which of 24 job factors are most important to IT professionals. And there at a lowly 16th most cited by staff and 17th by managers is "work with leading-edge technology," cited by about 1 in 5 of the 11,662 IT staffers and managers in our survey.

We also asked about the importance of "creating new innovative IT solutions." And because we ask IT pros to pick only their seven most important factors, you could argue that we're splitting the "innovator" vote, and that one catch-all category on emerging technology and innovation would show a greater hunger for those things at work.

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What I suspect is more true is that a segment of IT pros craves the excitement of new and constantly changing technology, but many more embrace the tried and true. Most like the feel of expertise and mastery more than the rush of uncertainty and experimentation.

So what matters most to you about your job? Looking at the responses to the 24 "what matters most" factors in our survey, the data as it applies to staffers falls into three broad tiers:

The package
The factors cited most by IT staffers in the survey fall into what I refer to as the "package" -- pay, benefits, vacation, flexible work schedule, and stable company. These are the cover-your-nut and have-a-life factors, so some of them will factor into nearly every IT pro's job priorities.

Companies must make sure they take care of these baseline factors, or they aren't even in the game of competing for talent. By far, the most common reason an IT staffer is looking to change jobs is for a higher salary -- cited by 72% of job seekers in our survey, far head of the next highest factor, more interesting work, at 49%.

The intangibles
In the middle come the intangibles, the hardest factors for IT leaders to address, since they're different for every IT pro. "Working on leading-edge tech" lands in here, as do "working with highly talented peers," "challenge of the job," "telecommuting options," and "commute distance."

These factors can be deal breakers for any given IT pro, but they aren't across-the-board important, like pay, bennies, and vacation are. As they recruit and assign IT staffers, IT leaders must figure out if they're matching a person's interests to the factors the job delivers.

The overrated
Most of us would guess that at least three of the following four factors are important to IT pros, when they actually land at the very bottom of our survey ranking: "effectiveness of immediate supervisor," "bonus opportunities," "involvement in setting company strategy and goals," and "prestige of the company."

Do these findings surprise you? Two jump out at me. One is that the supervisor isn't that important. We all know someone who has fled a terrible boss or followed a great one to a new company. But most supervisors are somewhere safely in the middle. One way to look at the unimportance given to supervisors is that they can screw things up and send people fleeing for the exits, but they don't have to be amazing to attract most IT pros.

The lowest-ranked factor that surprises me is also one that's essential knowledge for all those hugely successfully but hardly glamorous companies out there wondering if they can ever compete for top IT talent against the Googles and Microsofts of the world. Only 6% of IT pros say that "prestige of the company" is among their top factors for a job. This data says pretty definitively to those companies: Yes, you can compete for top talent.

Just remember to bring your checkbook.

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Editor's Choice
Sara Peters, Editor-in-Chief, InformationWeek / Network Computing
Pam Baker, Contributing Writer
James M. Connolly, Contributing Editor and Writer
Sara Peters, Editor-in-Chief, InformationWeek / Network Computing
Greg Douglass, Global Lead for Technology Strategy & Advisory, Accenture
Carrie Pallardy, Contributing Reporter