The end of July has been pretty difficult. We’ve lost a lot of people, we’re poised to lose even more, and we aren’t replacing them fast enough. That’s okay, though.
First thing Tuesday morning, one of my part-time infrastructure techs came to my office to let me know that his full-time employer  has outsourced his job to India and was shutting down his department. John successfully competed internally for a position at a new Co-Lo site … on the other side of the country. Oh, and his new site manager wanted him to start work in two weeks.
Wednesday morning, one of my full-time radio frequency systems techs formally tendered his resignation. Ramiro had accepted a lower-paying position with our local city government in order to get in on a pretty exciting, cutting edge R&D project. He’ll have two weeks to transition his current programs to his co-workers, at which point, he’ll transition to work for us part-time.
Sunday night, before leaving the office, another senior manager showed up at my office door unannounced and casually admitted that he’d been covertly trying to woo two of my part-time RF systems techs to come over to his department. I haven’t talked to Brandon and Adam yet to gauge how interested they are in this competing opportunity, but I’ll bet that at least one of them will want to pursue the transfer – it’s an opportunity to work on global HF radio systems that they can’t get by working with us.
Finally, I had to see off our RF spectrum manager on Sunday. Lance is heading back to Washington D.C. to work spectrum issues on the national level. We loaned him to the head office last summer because they were desperate for help. This weekend, the manager up at national called me and begged me to let her keep Lance for another six to twelve months. She’s desperate for qualified help, and our man has been doing great work for her. No surprise there.
The common thread to all of these employee losses is the exceptional capability of each employee. John beat out all of his competitors for the Co-Lo job because our outfit taught him advanced data infrastructure skills and gave him the opportunity to work on a massive, campus-wide, inside plant data project last year. Ramiro edged out all of his competitors because we had taught him all about switching, routing and computer maintenance, even though he was hired as a radio and wireless networking tech. Same story for Brandon. We met Adam when he came to our site to perform a circuit install for AT&T; he was so excited about what we were doing that he agreed to join our team. Then we sent him off to a nearly yearlong course on RF systems maintenance, effectively doubling his technical skill base. It was a similar story for Lance – he was an RF tech when we signed him, and we paid for him to learn spectrum management as a new career option.
In all of these examples, the losses we’re experiencing now are directly attributable to the time, money and mentoring that we’ve invested in our employees. Our people are in unusually high demand because they’re more skilled, more experienced and better educated than their peers in industry. Well done, lads.
Most managers that I’ve worked with over the years would analyze this situation and draw the logical conclusion: if you invest heavily in your employees’ education and professional development, then they will eventually (inevitably!) become too skilled for you to retain, and they will leave you … making that investment a waste of money. My predecessor in the IT department held that belief; he refused to train his people in order to ensure that they were never skilled enough to leave him. The employees that I inherited were effectively trapped, unable to move on with their lives and unqualified to land an equivalent or better job.
I submit that my predecessor was full of it.
When your employees know that you’re committed to their long-term success, their morale and esprit de corps become phenomenally strong. Their work ethic and their commitment to their peers increases exponentially. Yes, you will inevitably lose them; that’s a simple matter of economics. That’s okay … in the time that you have them, you’re getting significantly more and better work out your people … and they’re happier doing it. Those conditions, in turn, create for a workplace that people actually want to be in. Case in point: after the production crew left work yesterday, the managers got together on their off-time to discuss employee development strategies for another three hours … all on their own time, uncompensated, because the future of our team members is that important to the leadership team.
I suspect that we’re about to see a major rebound in the global economy for tech people. Yes, it’ll be uneven, and we’re still in for a number of years of financial difficulty overall, but the signs point to a renewed sense of optimism. Tech jobs are coming back at the same time that disruptive new technologies are saturating the workplace. It’s a great time to be a tech guy. There are more opportunities to do new and interesting things in the workplace than at any time since the rise of the Dot-Com bubble.
That being said, I submit that the best way to attract, retain and leverage top technical talent is to create an organizational culture that commits itself to implementing continuous professional development for all employees, proportional to the demonstrated level of commitment from each employee. Reward an employee’s enthusiasm, integrity and innovation with new work and training opportunities that the employee could never secure on their own. I’ve invested the last ten years tweaking this approach, and I can say with confidence that it creates a breeder-reactor situation: techs work harder because management values each contributor, and therefore unlocks new and exciting futures for them; management, meanwhile, takes joy in creating new opportunities for their workers, who then repay the investment many times over.
It’s awfully frustrating to lose a good employee. Often times, it’s like watching your children grow up and move out of the house. I submit that it’s worth it, though … for every brilliant tech that moves on to a thrilling new chapter in their life, two more eager young acolytes step up to replace him. For every tech that experiences an epiphany and embraces a mid-career change thanks to your investment in her education, ten more will rededicate themselves to the organization because they want to experience the same exhilaration.
Grow your people. I swear to you that it’s worth it. The work will get done, and it’ll get done well.
 About half of our IT department works with us as a second job; they put in an average of 30-40 hours work per month, paid at a daily rate. It’s a supplemental pay packet for most fellows, and a full-time job with another company pays almost all of their salary and benefits. Most fellows work for us part-time in order to do something different and learn something new that they can’t get at their regular, full-time employer.
Keil Hubert is a business, security and technology operations consultant in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo! Broadcast, and helped launch four small businesses (including his own). His experience creating and leading IT teams in the defence, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employees. He currently commands a small IT support organization for a military agency, where his current focus is mentoring technical specialists into becoming credible, corporate team leaders.