Recruiting options in the global high-tech market

Sept. 1, 1999

There's a war being waged in the high-tech world. To support the battlefield effort, major companies and innovative startups fight for talent in a variety of ways. Employers want to win the minds, if not the hearts, of a limited yet very talented labor pool.

In the United States, it's estimated that 150,000 to 200,000 information-technology jobs go unfilled. Hiring the best and brightest is more critical than ever. In fact, the high-tech job market is beginning to look a lot like the Internet--it's experiencing an unregulated, uncontrolled period of growth--a multifaceted, multidirectional scenario in which demand far outstrips supply.

A changed and charged economy--focused on short-term results and featuring increased competition, globalization, and other factors--altered the traditional job pattern forever. The terms "downsizing," "rightsizing," and "reengineering the work force" have joined the business lexicon. As a result, we literally beat to death the old notion of employee loyalty, and American industry, especially high-tech industry, is paying the price. The new economy, inherent with risk, created one thing for skilled high-tech employees--tremendous opportunities. Burned by the specter of layoffs, employees assumed responsibility for career management themselves.

As a result, turnover rates of less than 10% are unheard of today. Many employers, especially in Silicon Valley, experience employee turnover of 20% or more. For example, at Siemens Information and Communication Networks, we have about 7000 employees. In a year, we'll hire 600 to 1000 new employees. Some of that is growth; it also reflects turnover.

And we have relatively low turnover in our industry.

Companies need to make themselves the "employer of choice" for the targeted employee base. The company must align itself with the market and tailor its recruiting practices accordingly. That means implementing an aggressive recruiting strategy.

For startups, the game is easy: Lure prospective talent with a fistful of stock options in the hope that the company will be enormously successful. If the company soars, everyone wins; if it plummets, everyone loses and turnover doesn't really matter. Remember, though, that for every Microsoft or Cisco, there are at least 100 companies whose stock options are worth less than the paper they're printed on.

Established companies like Siemens face a different task. While we are growing, we also are evolving. Like a startup, we must prove ourselves every day. But in contrast to startups, we have a long history of success and stability.

So what's in our recruiting arsenal? We wage a multi-front effort. To begin, we aggressively recruit at the college level. Every year we visit the best engineering schools worldwide to recruit software and hardware engineers--people who can conduct research and development in the labs as well as those who want to attack real-time challenges in the field.

We use the Internet. In our industry, employees not only design and build products--they also use them. As a result, the Internet is an increasingly important tool for a variety of reasons.

We operate an extensive co-op program, with about 100 participants at any given time, which allows students to spend three or four semesters working with us. The students, who work at our headquarters in Boca Raton, FL, are provided furnished apartments less than a mile from the Atlantic Ocean (a nice place to live during February, especially if you're going to school in Indiana). The program allows us to evaluate the students, and they get a good look at Siemens, along with valuable, real-world experience. At the end of the program, we hire about 90% of our co-op students.

We also use an employee referral program. The telecommunications industry is tightly knit-everyone knows everyone else. We offer incentives to our employees to help us attract new talent to our organization. Recognizing that the labor market is international in scope, Siemens is developing a worldwide referral program. Unfortunately, in the United States, governmental regulations limit the number of high-tech employees that can be recruited from outside the country. It's ironic that laws originally designed to protect jobs now hinder the high-tech U.S. labor market where so many jobs go unfilled. What was once a local labor market, gradually expanded to a national labor market, then rapidly evolved into a highly competitive global labor market.

Of course, we use traditional recruiting practices, including direct sourcing, recruiting firms, and advertising that ranges from newspapers to billboards.

There are skilled high-tech jobs available that don't necessarily require a four-year college degree. Take manufacturing and field service as examples. To address this need, Siemens operates a large industrial apprenticeship program in the United States. More than 300 apprentices are enrolled in 25 programs, including one at Seminole Community College that is affiliated with our manufacturing facility in central Florida.

Our charge is to recruit new talent and avoid the "chipping away" of our current employee base. In this context, words and phrases such as "global," "stable," and "good place to work" assume an importance akin to "technological leader and innovator." We also attempt to balance work with a family-friendly culture, providing an environment that gives employees a chance to have a personal life outside the workplace.

A few days ago, it dawned on me that the game had changed yet again. Once upon a time, and not too long ago, a company's main human-resource focus was to provide a working environment in which employees felt comfortable and wanted to stay. Now, every day, we wake up and focus on providing a career environment that employees do not want to leave. And I think we have the answer. But that's a story for another day. q

Benton Howie is director of human resources for Siemens Information and Communication Networks Inc. (Boca Raton, FL).