Hiring: Smart Companies Get Aggressive

By Robert McGarvey

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How many top IT positions do you plan to fill this week? (And, no, that is not a set-up for a joke.) Listen to Jeanne Beliveau-Dunn, general manager at Learning@Cisco, the group responsible for professional development and certification: “We intend to be aggressive about hiring. If anything we will be increasing our hiring. We believe this climate is very good for hiring top people.”

Let that sink in and, while you’re at it, know that Cisco is not alone in believing that the current marketplace is ideal for cherry-picking talent. Lali Dhingre, president of NIIT Technologies, an outsourcer with some 10,000 employees in 44 countries, said “now is the right time to be hiring the right IT staff.”

Isn’t this crazy? Just about everywhere, IT hiring is entering a deep freeze and, in many companies, the coolest, cutting-edge projects are on hold because, quite simply, a stumbling economy encourages IT spending frugality. That’s right so far, but a profoundly counterintuitive message coming out of at least some companies is that “this is a good time to be hiring IT talent,” said Curt Sterling, a partner in IT staffing company Cydio Group.

There are three big reasons for this contrarian point of view and only the first has to do with finding gems among IT workers who have been laid off in the downturn. But let’s start there anyway:

“Good people are getting laid off and if you have openings, you will see many applicants,” said Donna James, SVP of Accent Global System Architects, which lately has been hiring IT staff because the company won a sizable federal government contract. James added that it is easy to be picky now. “We are interviewing 10 to 15 people for every position.” She also adds a caveat: desperate candidates are stretching their resumes; perhaps claiming credentials they don’t truly possess or wildly exaggerating job responsibilities. So thorough vetting is more necessary than ever. Do that, however, and James insists there are a lot of very talented people looking for work.

Sure, there is skepticism that quality performers can be found among IT’s fired and, in that regard, it is true that “we have not seen significant staff cuts in larger companies,” said Michael Winwood, president of Technisource, an IT recruiting firm. But smaller companies have been making deeper, broader and more indiscriminate cuts and, for diligent hunters, there are indeed good hires to be had.

Bargain Hunting Prevails

“Some candidates will even take a pay cut today,” said Sterling. “They know it’s not a seller’s market.” Candidates who had firm no-go rules—from no travel through no weekend work—suddenly are lots more flexible, too, adds Dave Barbato, CEO of Talent Retriever, an outsourced hiring solution that serves many IT companies. For companies that want to bring in strong talent on the company’s own terms, this is the time to be interviewing.

Top talent may particularly be restless. Take advantage of IT delays at other companies and know that every stalled project at other organizations gives you the chance to snag top talent, said Barbato. Picture an IT hotshot who is brought in to oversee a company’s cloud computing initiative, which gets put on hold, and he’s told he has been moved over to working on IT infrastructure. His first and immediate thought: how do I get out of here! “They want to be involved in exciting IT projects and even people who aren’t job-hoppers now will think about moving for an exciting opportunity,” said Barbato.

The bottom line is this is an ideal time to strengthen your staff. “If you want to gain a competitive advantage, do the opposite of what everybody else is doing,” said Cisco’s Beliveau-Dunn. “To us, a time like this is an ideal time to invest in people who are not ordinarily available.”

Do that and what happens is this: “viral marketing will kick in, you’ll get a reputation as the place to want to work,” said Barbato. IT is a team activity and the best IT people want to surround themselves with other top performers. “The more you do the right things, the more viral hiring becomes for you, the easier it gets to attract top candidates. It’s really that simple.”