Much is written about the wonders of technology. Often overlooked, is how companies become the best at attracting and keeping the people who make technology work for them-their IT employees. Many companies readily spout the corporate dictum about how people are their most important asset; far fewer actually "walk the talk."Now, with IT hiring on the rise again-especially in the financial services sector where it's projected to increase 28% in the first quarter of this year-industry observers are warning: It may be time to pay closer attention to the human factor in IT.

"We're seeing the market for IT professionals to be highly competitive," says Jean Delaney Nelson, CIO and vice president of information services at Securian Financial Group Inc., St. Paul, Minn. Since 9/11 and the dot-com crash, the number of college students who have chosen computer science as their major has dropped dramatically, she says. "Now, it's four years later, and they are not there."

Added to the front-end shortage, the Baby Boomers on the back end are retiring. So insurers are feeling the squeeze at both ends of the supply chain. "The economy is better right now, so we're having a little more difficulty finding people than when more people were in the job market," says Brian Abeyta, second vice president, IT tactical, at Aflac Inc., Columbus, Ga.

Even so, Abeyta says, Aflac competes now just like it did then for IT candidates. "We really haven't changed the way we attract IT professionals."

Perhaps that's because Aflac is already doing a good job. The company ranked 26th in the 100 Best Places to Work for IT professionals in Computerworld's 2005 listing. Abeyta cites generous benefits-including profit sharing, respect for work-life balance, and ample opportunities to learn and grow as reasons for the company's commendation.

Securian is also among "the best" places to work for IT professionals, capturing seventh place on the Computerworld list. It hasn't shifted its methods of attracting and retaining IT employees either - even as the market has tightened up.

Careful With Hiring

So what are these insurers doing to attract and retain their "most important asset?"

We're very careful with our hiring," says Securian's Delaney Nelson. "Some companies will hire more during boom times and lay off during bust times, but we are very conservative. If you make a commitment here for a career, and you meet your performance requirements, this is a very stable place to be." The 125-year-old company has never had a mass layoff, she notes.

Securian recruits approximately 90% at its IT staff at the entry-level from college campuses, preferring to grow new hires into management and senior level IT positions.

To that end, the company offers ample training & development, including a three-month-long entry-level training program, and it provides above-average benefits, such as a defined benefit retirement plan, profit sharing, flexible hours and telecommuting.

What's more, Securian does not send any important IT work to outside companies.

"We have a company philosophy that comes from our CEO that we will not outsource critical success factors," says Delaney Nelson. The company outsources some printing and unique business functions, such as fund accounting, she says, but it does most of its traditional IT work in-house.

That factor, along with a company's stability, are proving to be top-of-mind concerns among technology professionals.

Like Securian, Great-West Life & Annuity, Denver, Colo., also prefers to keep IT work close to home. "We do all our IT work in the U.S. We have not outsourced to other countries," says Tony Blake, senior manager, corporate recruiting, at Great-West. "Candidates like this a lot."

In addition to, Great-West IT candidates are now concerned with how much money is in the bank, says Kristen DesPalmes, recruiting consultant, at Great-West Life. "They're asking: 'Is this project funded?,'" she says.

"They didn't ask those questions in the late 1990s," says DesPalmEs. At that time, IT candidates were looking for the highest offer-and the company's stability didn't matter as much.

"Now, it's the opposite," she says. "If we make an offer to a candidate and another company makes an offer for more money, we can still get that candidate to come on board-because our company is stable."

No Silver Bullet

Candidates also like the fact that Great-West has a blend of systems-new technology and mainframes, according to Blake. Indeed, sources concur that providing IT employees with a stimulating learning environment that enables them to keep their skills up-to-date is key to attracting-and keeping-them. "For many years, we've been looking for the 'silver bullet' in terms of [what engages employees], and we haven't found one," says Gary Berger, Ph.D. and executive director of the Americas region of International Survey Research (ISR), a Chicago-based employee research firm.

"But the one thread we have found with high-tech employees is that they are very concerned that their 'tool kits' don't become obsolete."

Companies that provide them continuous development opportunities receive the highest "employee engagement" scores in ISR surveys, he says.

"IT professionals have a strong desire to keep learning and changing. They seem to be attracted to technology because they like the excitement of new stuff," Securian's Delaney Nelson concurs.

And, although insurance isn't 'bleeding edge' in its use of technology, she says, the industry has been embracing leading-edge technologies in the past few years-just to remain competitive.

Securian was an early adopter of computer-telephony integration (CTI), for instance. "New technologies such as CTI are always fun for our IT associates to work with," she says.

Fun may be just what the doctor ordered for companies that care about keeping their IT workers from jumping ship. According to recent ISR research, they are overworked, stressed out and worried about losing their jobs.

Stress is a problem for 51% of U.S. IT workers, which is 10% higher than the overall U.S. workforce, reports ISR. What's more, the number of IT workers who say they would seriously consider leaving their company is up to 25%, an increase of 9% from a year ago.

"When asked if their workload is excessive, there was a 15-point difference between IT workers and those in the national norm," says Mike Sokol, Ph.D., and project director at ISR. "A lot more IT workers are feeling they don't have the staffing levels they need to get the work done," ISR's Berger adds.

IT professionals are anxious about losing their jobs, ISR research also shows. Only 57% of IT workers are sure they will continue to have a job as long as they perform well, compared with 68% of U.S. workers overall. And 57% of IT workers are worried about being laid off within the next year, compared with 47% of the U.S. workforce overall.

Why those negative indicators-when other industry research shows insurers are increasing their IT hiring activity?

Offshore outsourcing may be, in part, to blame, says ISR's Sokol. "The U.S. Labor Department hasn't tracked any hard numbers on exactly how many U.S. jobs have been [sent offshore]," he notes, "but the perception is that IT is impacted heavily by outsourcing."

And, whether or not offshore outsourcing is to blame, U.S. Commerce Department statistics show the number of IT workers employed in all industries has declined 8% since 2000, as reported in a position paper on offshore outsourcing published by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE).

"The trend has been toward outsourcing and a jobless recovery," Sokol notes. "All this leads to the perception and anxiety that those jobs are going away."

Whether or not U.S. IT jobs are going away remains to be seen, but the morale of IT workers is affecting Corporate America, says ISR's Berger.

"Sometimes executives don't see the connection between this kind of data and their bottom line," he says. "But when they begin to experience higher turnover, they become more concerned-because they realize it's difficult to find people who are high-performing and high potential to fill these positions. And it's expensive to recruit and train these employees to the point where the person who left was before leaving."

Applicant Tracking System Lowers Recruiting Costs

Three years ago, Great-West Life & Annuity's cost-per-hire reached $5,500, which includes print advertising, agency fees and relocation costs. Last year, after implementing an applicant tracking system (ATS), the Denver, Colo.-based insurer reduced cost-per-hire to $1,600.

With 1,700 positions filled annually, these reductions have added up to $6.6 million in savings.

"Most people call this an applicant tracking system, but I look at it as a full life-cycle recruiting system," says Tony Blake, senior manager, corporate recruiting, at Great-West, describing iRecruiter, from iCIMS, Hazlet, N.J.

The system makes the process of applying online for a job at Great-West fast and easy, according to Blake. "Applicants enter their information once and they never have to enter it again-even if they are returning users." Previously, the company's online application process took 20 to 40 minutes to complete.

For Great-West recruiters, the system provides a centralized repository for applicant and recruiting data. "With one or two mouse clicks, we have access to a lot of information," says Blake. "We can see the details of the job. We can see the approvals for the job. We can see details about each candidate, such as contact information, resume, and job application history."

Because the system automates the internal approval for new hires, Great-West has removed two to three days from the overall process. The technology also enables the company to automatically screen online applicants with "knock-out" questions, so recruiters are only looking at candidates who fill the minimum qualifications for the job.

Great-West uses iRecruiter for all its hiring-and at press time, the company had filled 106 IT positions through the system.

IT candidates appreciate the system's feature that enables them to set up a job search agent, which alerts them when a job opens that meets their criteria, says Kristen DesPalmes, recruiting consultant, at Great-West.

They also notice Great-West's responsiveness, she says. "The system has a communication center, which makes it very easy for us to let candidates know where they stand in the process-whether it's a declination or a request for an interview," she says. "We get a lot of comments from they saying, "Wow. My resume isn't in a black hole. I'm actually getting a response."

And Great-West has saved thousands of dollars in search fees for IT candidates, says Blake. Since implementing iRecruiter, the company has paid only one search fee to an outside agency. Previously, more than half its IT jobs were filled through third parties, he says. "We're not paying search fees anymore."

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