Why SMEs are winning the war for talent

Big corporations are struggling to retain the top tech workers, says Harvey Nash CEO Albert Ellis.

by Albert Ellis
Last Updated: 11 Jun 2019

It’s digital with everything these days. The demand from businesses for tech talent to help drive automation of processes, develop AI applications and digitise channels is simply huge.

So huge in fact that skills shortages in IT are as bad as they have ever been: we just can’t produce enough skilled tech professionals to meet the demand we ourselves are creating.

But that is the reality and it’s affecting businesses all across sectors. However, where there is variation is in the size of businesses that are feeling the shortages most. Big corporates are suffering more than smaller, younger businesses.

The recent Harvey Nash/KPMG CIO Survey, taking in the views of over 3,600 IT leaders around the world, found that over seven in ten businesses over 50 years old say they are facing a tech talent problem, compared to only 60 per cent of young businesses. Only 26 per cent of businesses with large IT budgets over $250m say they are able to retain key staff in their tech teams compared to 44 per cent of smaller businesses with budgets of under $50m.

There was a time when large corporates had the talent issue sewn up. Graduates would naturally gravitate towards them after university, attracted by the prospect of a stable, reliable, remunerative position with good benefits and solid prospects to build their career. A couple of decades ago, the concept of a ‘job for life’ was still alive and well.

But things have changed now. Millennials think differently to their parents. They want nimbler career paths, moving on much more frequently. They are most interested in innovative projects and learning new skills, more so than in status and job security. They want to earn well, but they don’t want to be tied down while they do it.

They also place huge emphasis on the quality of experiences. So they want to work in an environment that motivates and excites them, collaborating and sharing ideas, mixing with like-minded people.

These factors mean it is often smaller, newer businesses that naturally attract today’s young talent. I think of it as the ‘WeWork’ syndrome. Flexible workspaces, co-located with other similar businesses, in an ideas environment: this is the kind of vision that inspires many of the new generation. They are also attracted to smaller businesses because they tend to have flatter structures and less bureaucracy, and make change happen faster.

One example is Freetrade, a fintech company we work with in London, which has created a sophisticated stock investment app. They have been very successful at attracting tech talent, usually filling their tech positions within a matter of weeks.

So what can the big blue chips of today do about this? For me, their challenge is less one of attraction than of retention. Many millennials are still keen to join the big established players – but often with an eye on getting some good names on their CV and then moving on.

Once they’re in, corporates need to ensure that their young tech talent are continually being stretched and given the opportunity to learn new skills. Put them in collaborative environments where ideas can be exchanged. Push them to achieve and grow. Give them individual responsibility but with a sense of shared purpose.

Purpose is another quality that really matters to the new generation. The majority want to work for organisations that have an inspiring societal mission and a clear set of values, usually with strong ethical, environmental and sustainability credentials.

Businesses that can demonstrate this, whatever their size, are likely to find it easier to attract and retain the people they need. It must be ‘real’ though. Bland statements on the website are not enough.

Many large businesses have a strong story to tell. The big consultancies and accountancy firms, for example, are highly effective in communicating their commitment to such things as diversity, equality, gender balance and equal pay. This resonates well with millennials and can be a powerful draw. Corporates have ways of fighting back.

Everyone is feeling the pressure of a tech talent shortage, big and small. It’s the businesses that can provide stimulating and innovative environments, flexible career paths, and a strong values base, that will be best positioned to meet the challenge.

Albert Ellis is CEO of global tech recruiter Harvey Nash. To register for a copy of the Harvey Nash/KPMG CIO Survey 2019 report, click here.

Image credit: Junior Teixeira/Pexels

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