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December 2001
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Recruitment & Retention

How to Attract & Retain Quality I.T. Staff

By Donna Payne

How to Attract & Retain Quality I.T. Staff ONE OF the biggest challenges of managing an I.T. staff is recruiting and retaining quality employees. But ongoing training can keep your I.T. staff alert, interested, and away from job-hunting Web sites.

Take, for example, a help desk staffer. The first month or two is challenging. But after a while, the questions begin to repeat until finally the experienced help desk worker can almost predict the problems and the answers before the user has a chance to finish the first sentence.

So how can you prevent help desk and other I.T. staffers from bolting after a few months? Offer training opportunities that will not only keep them at your firm, but keep them happy, and at the same time, improve the quality and sophistication of the service you can provide to your technology "end users."

The first step may be obvious, but talk to your staff. Otherwise, you'll have no clue whether or not they are happy in their job, or where their interests lie. With good communication, you can assign choice projects to the right person -- who will feel the assignment is a reward and not a punishment.

Group meetings can also yield useful information. Bring up several areas of technology and note the interest level in each. A few topics to suggest may be project management, database development, Web and Intranet design, programming, or certification programs. It may not be feasible to offer all of these options, but you will let the group know that you are at least thinking of things that might improve their job satisfaction.

Training Options

Here are some training options that might work for your staff:

* Project Management

A good candidate for a project management course is the ace trainer or help desk person who displays initiative, is organized, and highly effective.

Look for individuals who work well in a team environment. Dictators and introverts typically make poor project managers because they are not approachable.

Check out the Project Management Institute. It offers classes, seminars, publications and support groups for project managers.

* Certified Trainer

If your trainers are not certified, they should be. Just about every software in existence, excluding perhaps, Tomb Raider, has certification programs in place. Whether you want to be certified in Red Hat, Microsoft, or Lotus Notes, you will find something for everyone.

There are as many different levels of certifications as are there are types of certification. Take Microsoft Corp. for example. Microsoft Office specialists can become certified in the products that they support through the Microsoft Office User Specialist (MOUS) program.

There are two levels to this certification: Proficient User, and Expert. Your trainers and help desk staff should go straight for the expert certification. The tests are typically an hour and focused on usability, meaning that the test taker goes through the steps to accomplish tasks such as Mail Merge in Word, or a PivotTable in Excel. The computer analyzes each test in real-time and a pass or fail is given upon completion. These tests are reasonably priced (between $60 to $75) and provide individuals with not only the certification but increased credibility within your organization.

For more technical certification, the MCP (Microsoft Certified Professional), MCSD (Microsoft Certified Solution Developer), and MCSE (Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer) certifications are available. These certifications are challenging to say the least and require a great deal of preparation and study.

Microsoft also has a Microsoft Certified Trainer (MCT) program that focuses on high end Microsoft software products. In order to become a MCT an individual must pass specific tests, attend the classes that they wish to be certified to teach, and acquire additional credentials.

But unless your organization is in the training business, the MCT certification won't necessarily be of use because all Microsoft official training curriculum and training must be offered by a certified training center which is another program in and of itself.

* Programmers/Macro Development

Just about everyone can benefit from learning a little about programming. But before offering macro training, evaluate the software to know whether or not the functionality often provided through the use of macros is already included. Don't try and reinvent the wheel by adding automated features that already exist.

For example, Microsoft Office uses the macro language, Visual Basic for Applications or VBA for short. If your organization uses Microsoft Office for word processing, spreadsheets and presentations, learning VBA is the next logical step. There are programming classes for every level of VBA user. For example, a secretary might attend an overview class to determine whether there is enough interest or need to pursue further training. Many organizations offer trainers and help desk staff a more introductory class, typically lasting three to five days.

Because people learn best by doing, a hands-on approach tends to work best with respect to VBA training. Existing programmers should be placed in a class setting with like-skilled individuals. Advanced classes often include more theory for those programmers who are likely to continue to learn and use programming. The important thing is to start with the appropriate level. And never take a programming class from someone who is simply a trainer with no programming experience. A successful VBA trainer has extensive experience in both training and programming.

Finally, once your staff has completed a programming class, they must have the opportunity to put their training to use immediately. The old saying "out of sight, out of mind" could not be more true in this case.

If they don't have any projects to work on, they will forget all that they have learned. Even if a person uses VBA to write macros every day for six months, they will still only be likely to become a decent intermediate developer within this time frame. Mastering any programming language takes time.

* Web and Intranet Development

A frequently held misconception is that anyone can design a Web page. In reality, most Web sites are developed by experienced developers who understand the underlying structure more than the content. A good starting point for a person with little or no background in Web design could be content submission.

To start with, ask the individual to come up with content for the firm Intranet or Web site. Make sure to provide clear guidelines including information about what you will and will not use. Set realistic expectations.

Once the material has been submitted, have the content provider sit down with the current Web developer to see how the information is added to the site. Having content created from a variety of sources is extremely valuable to any organization.

The following Web sites and publications offer valuable information for aspiring Web developers: Learn to build Web sites with emphasis on Java and JavaScript programming. Useful tutorials and information on designing Web pages. Search through libraries of knowledge base articles and the developer area of the Web site to learn more about creating Web pages.

* Database Applications

Another area of opportunity is learning about database applications. There are a variety of database software applications on the market, including Microsoft Access, SQL, FoxPro, Oracle, Sybase, XBase, Filemaker Pro and Paradox.

These types of databases are commonly used in knowledge management and collaboration based software.

Of course, all firms face the risk that newly-trained staff will bolt for new, higher-paid jobs. But the opposite is also common: by offering opportunities for continued education, many employees develop long lasting loyalty to the organization and to the manager that helped to develop them professionally.

Donna Payne is president of Payne Consulting Group, a training and development company headquartered in Seattle, Wash. She is the author of Microsoft Word 2002 for Law Firms (Prima Press) and is a member of the Microsoft Legal Advisory Counsel.

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