What do IT workers want?

Smart employers know the score: Take-home pay still matters, but so do company culture, praise and challenging work.

As the economy continues to rebound and the competition for qualified IT professionals reaches new heights, employers seeking to attract or retain staffers are increasingly becoming like anxious suitors, desperate to figure out how to please their dates: "What do you want? What will make you stay? What really matters in our relationship?"

According to Computerworld's 2014 IT Salary Survey, tech workers are looking for many traditional benefits of a good partnership: financial security, stability and reliability -- all represented by salary and benefits. But this year's results confirm a growing trend: IT professionals are placing increasing importance on "softer" factors in the workplace, which have less to do with dollars and cents and more to do with corporate culture, personal growth and affirmation.

[ Also on InfoWorld: IT salary survey 2014: Who's hot, who's not. | Also: 7 blowhard bosses huff and puff and bring your job down. | Get a digest of the day's top tech stories in the InfoWorld Daily newsletter. ]

Read the full report: Computerworld IT Salary Survey 2014

Over the past several years, traditional incentives like base pay, benefits and bonuses have declined in importance, while less tangible rewards like recognition for a job well done, the opportunity to work with talented people, and the knowledge that one's opinions are valued have gained ground.

To be clear, money still talks: Base pay still outranks all factors. But whereas 73 percent of respondents ranked pay as one of their five top concerns in the 2012 survey, just 49 percent did so in 2014. Benefits took a similar plunge, cited by 36 percent of those polled this year, down from 59 percent in 2012. And the percentage of respondents choosing vacation time declined eight points over the same period.

The biggest gainers over that span are factors that have a positive impact on quality of life (the choice of commuting distance rose seven points), the worker's sense of security (job stability made the same gain) and the work environment (job atmosphere/community, being recognized for good work and being valued for one's knowledge all rose five to seven points). Being able to work with highly talented peers and having challenging work are on the rise as well.

Why these factors, and why now?

"In our recovering economy, IT workers are growing more confident," says Shravan Goli, president of IT staffing firm Dice, which noted the importance of intangible rewards in its own recent salary survey. "The job market is good, with a lot more jobs out there. Folks are less worried about retention.

"Good pay is still necessary for retaining workers," he continues, "but it's no longer sufficient. These days, employees are putting a greater emphasis on career ambition and personal growth."

At the same time, the nature of IT work is shifting, demanding a different mix of skills and traits. Where it once was desirable to be a master of a particular technology, today's projects often require high degrees of collaboration, says John Reed, senior executive director of IT staffing firm Robert Half Technology. The ideal worker has a balance of tech skills and people skills, he says, so it's not surprising that workplaces where people have the opportunity to acquire or use collaboration skills are gaining favor.

Respect, trust and fulfillment

Marty Rosensweig has had a long and successful career in IT. Beginning as a self-proclaimed "Beltway bandit" in 1973, he worked for years at American Management Systems (AMS) in a variety of roles. He left in 2002 and now works for a technology consulting company called ECSTeam as a senior consultant. What matters most to him in his work is the chance to continually reinvent himself.

"I'm at a point in my life where I'm not looking to get promoted but to be challenged," he says. "I want to get something done. I want exciting and interesting work. I'm not really looking to make a million bucks."

Even in his earlier years, Rosensweig says, money wouldn't have been his only, or necessarily his primary, motivator. Much higher on his needs list were being recognized for his skills and having the opportunity to deploy them in the company of people he respected.

For instance, during his time at AMS, the company recognized Rosensweig for his contributions as a skilled technician -- and not always with tangible rewards. "Those 'attaboys' and title promotions -- they go a long way," he says.

Though a generation younger, Andy Dillbeck shares Rosensweig's views. A Web and database developer at JL Warranty, Dillbeck says the morale boosters his company dreams up create a corporate culture that has kept him content in his first job out of college.

Small perks, like impromptu smoothie runs and a modest stipend for carpoolers, add up, he says. Even more important, he adds, is the feeling that others trust his skills and the understanding that the company will invest in developing them.

"I've thought about applying elsewhere, but here I'm always being encouraged to try new things," says Dillbeck, who has worked at JL Warranty for eight years. "When something goes well, when you go beyond expectations, you hear about it. I don't want to end up in a cubicle farm where nothing you do really matters."

The freedom to challenge himself, on company time, makes a difference. For instance, a few years ago when his manager saw Dillbeck's enthusiasm for the then brand-new iPhone, he encouraged him to experiment with the technology. Dillbeck made two iOS apps, just to see if he could. That sort of trust and support is compensation of a different but no less important kind, he says.

Goli equates desirable workplace traits to Abraham Maslow's theory of the hierarchy of needs, which holds that meeting basic needs leads people to seek higher and higher levels of fulfillment. In the workplace, Goli says, once an adequate level of base pay and benefits are achieved, workers are freed up to consider higher needs like cultural fit and professional growth.

"Most tech jobs pay pretty well," Goli says. "So where is the additional motivation to come from? Tech professionals in particular find fulfillment in challenge and innovative environments."

Using culture to compete

IT managers charged with hiring and retaining staffers need to keep softer factors in mind if they want to compete in today's labor market. A dearth of candidates in areas like big data, cloud computing, security, mobile and game development has companies competing like never before for a limited number of qualified workers, Reed says.

"Companies know that they can't just put a job description out there and expect that to be enough these days," he explains. "They have to tell the story of why, exactly, someone would want to work at their company. And the elements of that story have to include things like the creative and supportive environment that's on offer, the chance to make a difference to a company's vision, and what their company contributes to the community."

Employers aren't competing on a level playing field, Reed adds. High-profile companies like Google and LinkedIn have an easier time recruiting workers than more obscure or stodgier organizations. Public-sector employers face some of the highest obstacles.

"As a university, we know we're not always competitive with private industry on base pay. With a market this hot, it's a huge hurdle to find talent," says Tom Harney, a programmer analyst at the University of Louisville in Kentucky. "But we can sell candidates on a culture, on education benefits and a flexible work environment."

Harney himself is 15 years into his IT career. He has experience at a range of organizations, including a Fortune 500 company, a small e-learning business and a midsize finance company. Across those jobs, the defining factor in his satisfaction has always been cultural, he says.

"Every time I looked for a job, that's been important," he adds. "At times, I've felt like I was sold a bill of goods; a company promised that kind of supportive culture and then didn't deliver. I keep that in mind with the people I manage now."

Jana Canada has been working in the public sector since the late 1970s. Her current job is as a network administrator for the Sutter County government in California. She has been caught in an unenviable position, where pay remains tight and the quality-of-life benefits are declining. A much-appreciated working schedule that included half-day Fridays was recently axed with little notice, for instance.

What's worse, Canada says, there's a creeping disregard for the skills folks like her have honed over the years -- skills that are still key to the smooth functioning of the county's systems.

"Over the last five or six years, we're seeing an environment that turns its nose up at you," Canada says. "Everybody wants to be appreciated. A 'well done!' would mean a lot, especially in a situation where there hasn't been a raise for three or four years. I used to wake up and think, 'What's going to happen today?' But it's harder to sustain that motivation in this environment."

Millennial influence

Now more than ever, companies need to be concerned with how their workplaces are perceived by outsiders, says Jack Cullen, president of IT staffing firm Modis. "Prospective employees are really selective these days, and they can find out a lot more about what's really going on at your company. [The millennial] generation especially: They want to know a lot upfront about your company's culture. They ask good questions, different questions."

Whereas older employees are likely to ask about the project at hand, younger ones ask about softer factors, and "they have the power of social media behind them," Cullen says. "If a company says it has an appreciative environment, job seekers can find out if that's true through backdoor references or online at places like Glassdoor. Transparency is the name of the game now."

In the ongoing arms race for IT talent, the companies that prevail will make cultural changes to stay competitive to the generation now entering the workforce. As Dice's Goli sees it, "those companies that can outline a path forward for their employees -- help them migrate to the next level of their growth and connect that to the work of the company -- those are the ones that will do best in the employment space."

Stephanie Wilkinson, a Lexington, Va., writer, is the former publisher of Brain, Child Magazine.

This article, What do IT workers want?, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

Read more about staff management in Computerworld's Staff Management Topic Center.

This story, "What do IT workers want?" was originally published by Computerworld.

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