Information technology specialists, the brains behind the computers, remain in high demand in the tight labor market.
And despite layoffs at struggling Web design and technology integration firms, business owners continue to scramble to manage information systems as program updates hit the market almost daily.
The average IT position turns over every 18 months and, depending on what side of the desk you're on, frequent staff changes can be seen as a perk or a detriment.
Robert Agnew, director of Information Technology at Baldwin Wallace College, manages more than 2,000 computers, approximately 40 servers and all campus telecommunications systems. He says that to fill the gap, many companies bring in foreign workers to manage technology, putting it on par with outsourcing as an alternative to trying to tap into the limited local work force.
Recently, Agnew lost three staff members to private industry, a move which nearly doubled their salaries.
"The money looks good but it may not be the best thing for the employee," says Agnew.
It may not be the best thing for employers, either, as they're losing IT employees not long after they pluck them from universities and entry-level positions. And, while employers continue to stare at empty desks, they weigh the option of meeting the inflated IT pay scale and the effects of doing so on the bottom line.
Don Shadrake, chief information officer at The FocIS Group LLC, sees IT turnover in a positive light. FocIS is an affiliate of the Reserves Network, a staffing group specializing in the information technology work force.
"Most of the real cutting-edge people in my field tend to do a lot more job jumping than probably any other field on the face of the planet," admits Shadrake.
But the advantage he sees is in the integration of fresh ideas. That, however, comes with a price. While moving from one company to another means employees are constantly learning new systems and technology, that knowledge is accompanied by inflated salary demands and a superficial level of loyalty.
Despite that, Agnew agrees that change can be good.
"Some movement is good when people move up to their level of competence," he says.
So the current trend may be good for employees and the technology industry. Higher demand equates to higher wages, which draws people into the field.
"The number of IT jobs being created far and away outstrips the number of IT folks entering the market," says Agnew.
But many businesses also feel the downside because, as in any discipline, employees are not fully productive during the learning curve.
"I'm not so sure new employees do a great deal of thinking outside the box," Agnew says.
Stopping the brain drain
Andy Balasz believes the answer lies in handling the turnover by managing the people involved. Balasz is vice president of Information Systems Services at Antares Management Solutions, a division of Medical Mutual. Antares offers information technology and business process solutions to a customer base of large health insurance companies.
"Turnover is good," Balasz says. "People have to try new things and get involved in new things to change the status quo."
At the same time, he acknowledges the cost of hiring, training and bringing in a new employee is substantial. That's why he instituted a strategy designed to combat losing his highly skilled consultants -- he varies assignments and customers, which keeps his staff challenged and learning.
The result is that Antares' turnover rate is less than 10 percent, an excellent statistic in an industry diagnosed with brain drain.
"A technologist can work on a different customer, a different technology, can kind of turn over from the job they're in into something else and get the advantages of new energy, new focus and new ideas," he says. "But not lose that loyalty to the company, that vision of where you're going and that knowledge of the infrastructure that you're afraid to lose."
The spectrum of applications is broad enough to keep the IT staff learning, and employee stability a selling point for obtaining clients, Balasz contends.
"It's given us the ability to turn people over in a business area but not turn them over in a company."
Temporary solution or wave of the future?
Ironically, businesses like Antares would not be necessary if outsourcing weren't the result of constant turnover and the desire to tap into updated methodology.
"If you talk to most of the bigger companies around Greater Cleveland, that's where a lot of the new ideas come from," says Shadrake.
But he also believes the decline of the in-house IT department is a result of "the glass house mentality," in which people always see processes done one way and believe they should stay that way. Therefore, change is never initiated.
Staffing opportunities at FocIS have increased exponentially over the last three months, and Shadrake credits the growth to two key approaches -- do more with fewer employees and invest in technology rather than people.
So turnover, once seen as a bold negative, can be a positive, especially with short-term projects. By outsourcing, companies can work smarter and reduce payroll and benefits, yet provide efficient programs -- in other words, make dollars and sense.
Northeast Ohio Software Association president James Cookinham says Ohio is not alone in its IT staffing problems. Even the educational realm is affected. Teachers are lured away by high salaries in private industry and are harder to come by. And large technology companies snatch up students before they can get their resumes in the mail.
Cookinham should know. He regularly meets with other IT organizations around the United States.
"It's a challenge for the whole country," he says.
The key is not to panic. Instead, the solution lies in how your company handles change. How to reach: Northeast Ohio Software Association, (216) 592-2257 or www.NEOSA.org; The FocIS Group LLC, (440) 779-4800 or www.TheFocISGroup.com
Deborah Garofalo (firstname.lastname@example.org) is associate editor at SBN Magazine.