Human capital: Show me more than the money
"There's a smaller pool of candidates that have specialized tools available to them, everyone's competing for the same [candidates]. Everyone has the same challenge of vacancies to fill." Cyndi Fischer, STG International Inc.
"If you don't allow them to [pursue development opportunities], they're going to go somewhere else where they can." Sandy Eichelberger, Stanley Inc.
The talent war is fully engaged in the government market. Companies of all sizes need rank-and-file employees with the latest skills and the imagination and desire to tackle some of the toughest technology challenges.
But in the battle for those employees, one strategy does not fit all.
Small and midsize firms might not be able to match the salaries that large companies can offer candidates, but money is not always the deciding factor.
Businesses have found that professionals looking for new jobs also want offers from potential employers to include opportunities for growth, training and education. Some prefer the more intimate and collegial atmosphere at a small business, while others are content to find that environment in a business unit that is part of a much larger organization. Others drift toward the midsize players seeking the best of both worlds.
Many contractors have the added challenge of ensuring that at least some of their workers have security clearances. In those situations, they must either hire people who already hold clearances or hire good candidates and take the chance that they'll pass the background check.
Advances in technology favor younger candidates, said Cyndi Fischer, director of strategic recruitment at STG International Inc. "There's a smaller pool of candidates who have specialized tools available to them," she said. "Everyone's competing for the same [candidates]. Everyone has the same challenge of vacancies to fill."
STG, based in Alexandria, Va., specializes in providing staffing and human resources services primarily to government agencies. Those agencies compete against contractors for the same pool of candidates, Fischer said, but the government's slow hiring process puts the agencies at a disadvantage.
Companies also typically offer higher salaries than government, which can make them more attractive to younger workers, said Tamara de la Camp, vice president of technical and strategic services at STG.
"It's a little tougher at college age because they're more interested in paying off their student loans and getting a foot in the door, but it's still possible" for agencies to find good candidates, she said.
The demand for workers can lead contractors to compete with one another for the best hires, with the outcome tilted in favor of larger companies, said Eric Basu, president and chief executive officer of Sentek Consulting, based in San Diego.
Sentek is a small firm, so it looks for what it can offer beyond a competitive salary, he added.
"Right now the market is extremely tough," he said. "We don't have the dollars to bid against large companies if they choose to make it a salary war."
Basu said he recommends finding out what motivates people, which some candidates can articulate more easily than others.
"A lot of the time you'll have people who are very, very good at a job, but that doesn't mean it's what they want to do," he said. "Try to find out what people want to do in life. For some people, it's public recognition. For some people, it is salary. For some people, it's knowing that if they need to take time off for family, they can. For some, it's the ability to work with cutting-edge technology. I could go on and on."
Basu said one employee, a retired admiral, picked Sentek for the opportunity to help make effective changes to government, forgoing the chance to earn more money at a larger company.
"A retired flag officer, when they go to a large company, they're basically expected to go do business development," Basu said. "It's expected that you'll go shill for a large program, regardless of whether you believe in it or not."
But even large companies face challenges hiring and, especially, keeping good employees, said Jim Gattuso, director of staffing and recruitment at El Segundo, Calif.-based Computer Sciences Corp.'s North American Public Sector division.
"Salary is always a factor, but we find that once you are in the candidate's ballpark, many candidates look at a broader picture," he said. The factors they consider include the breadth and scope of the contracts they might work on, the company's benefits, and perhaps most important, training and professional development opportunities.
"They want to be sure they can stay current," Gattuso said. "You have to be competitive with salaries, but you also have to be offering more than just that. That also gets into retention. You might be able to recruit them, but if you can't retain your staff with training, you're going to have a high attrition rate."
Training and providing support for employees pursuing professional certification are key factors in attracting and keeping good people, said Sandy Eichelberger, vice president of human resources at Stanley Associates Inc., a midsize professional services company in Arlington, Va.
"That's kind of what drives them," she said. "If you don't allow them to [pursue development opportunities], they're going to go somewhere else where they can."
When Stanley was a privately held company, one of its selling points to potential recruits was that it could support employees' professional needs without worrying about pleasing shareholders. Although Stanley became a public company last year and can no longer make that claim, company officials are trying to retain as much of that culture as possible, Eichelberger said.
"The culture here still [has] that kind of entrepreneurial, small-company feel to it," she said. "It's free to bring up ideas."
Basu said companies should not try to accommodate all employees' needs. Sometimes, people need things that a small firm just can't offer, he said.
"If you want to keep people on for more than a couple of years, a person's going to change in that time in terms of what their goals are," he said. "Continually monitoring your folks to see how they're changing is key. Some of them are going to change in ways that you can't accommodate."
Before trying to meet those employees' needs, he said, "you have to be realistic and make sure it's good for the company."Associate Editor Michael Hardy can be reached at email@example.com.
Technology journalist Michael Hardy is a former FCW editor.