The Right Staff

Utilize often-overlooked recruiting practices.

Development managers had better start getting used to some unusual new ways of finding and retaining employees if they expect to keep their shops staffed amid a looming recruitment double-whammy.

Just as the first baby boomers near retirement age, the number of computer science degrees awarded at American colleges and universities has plunged roughly 40 percent over the last three years, according to a Computer Research Association report released in May.

The market for developers could get squeezed from both ends, recruiting experts say, as veteran programmers call it a career and fewer entry-level coders emerge from degree programs. Offshoring may ease the pinch some, especially for low-level grunt work, but Forrester Research Inc. analyst Samuel Bright says dev shop managers would be naive to think far-flung programmers in developing countries can replace talented staff developers.

"It's not a silver bullet. It's not going to solve all of your recruiting problems," says Bright, who recently surveyed 40 CIOs about hiring trends and practices for a Forrester report due out this month.

Cast a Wider Net
Bright says the best recruitment strategy is a balanced approach in which potential employees are sought on college campuses, among trainable business professionals who are skilled technology users and, of course, in the ranks of developers working elsewhere. Many companies focus almost entirely on the latter group, which Bright calls "the most over-fished portion of the ocean."

That approach is the technology equivalent of a major league baseball team that only acquires players in big-money deals with other teams without bothering to nurture young players through its minor league system. The result for development shops and baseball teams is the same: The pool of talent shrinks and the payroll skyrockets as sought-after employees gain the power to name their price.

Top Programming Languages
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Top 10 most-popular programming languages per TIOBE

"Very few IT organizations take advantage of all three streams of talent, and they suffer the consequences," Bright says.

The online job-search site most associated with the technology industry, Monster.com, recently conducted a survey with Development Dimensions International Inc. that left little doubt that it's already a job seekers' market.

More than half of the hiring managers surveyed reported they have to aggressively sell jobs to candidates today. What's more, nearly a third of active job seekers reported they'd been in their present job less than six months.

Link Outside the Box
Some companies have begun trolling blogs, wikis and social networking sites such as LinkedIn in an effort to land the people with the skills they need, says David Pultorak, CEO of the Seattle-based IT training and consulting firm Pultorak & Associates Ltd.

Pultorak says his firm and some of its clients have plucked outstanding employees from social networking Web sites and classified advertisement sites such as Craigslist, which aren't typically associated with the technology industry.

"I was surprised myself, I'll be honest," says Pultorak, who initially didn't expect the approach to turn up top-notch candidates. "We were looking for people and we'd struck out with the Monster.coms of the world. We went on to Craigslist and got 20 resumes, and they were really good. We've hired these people, and they've worked out really well."

Other companies feeling the recruiting pinch, including industry star Google Inc., are reportedly hosting guerilla recruiting events such as programming contests and pizza parties to get potential candidates into the building. With the scramble on for talent, Bright says development shops simply can't afford to pursue new hires while pushing out programmers in their 40s and 50s whose skills have fallen out of date.

Develop the Existing Talent
Retraining older workers to program in new languages, while expensive, can return "immense value" for companies, because veteran employees intimately understand the business context in which the dev shop operates, Bright says. But he often hears CIOs complain that older workers aren't motivated to learn new programming skills.

"Sometimes it comes down to how the message is being presented," he says. "There's a real fallacy that you can't teach an old dog new tricks. It's more how you go about it. It's insulting to these people to just say, 'You have to learn this technology or you're useless to us.'"

Don't expect half-hearted quickie training seminars to turn older workers into hot new assets. Managers have to be willing to reach into their budgets and set aside plenty of time for the transformation to work.

Bright cites the example of the Chicago-based insurance company Kemper Auto and Home Group, where 13 of 14 older Cobalt programmers were successfully retrained in Java. The company invested in an eight-month curriculum of classes, which were held partly on company time and partly in the evening.

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