Talent Wars: How Boston-Area IT Companies Are Dealing With A Severe Staffing Crunch

12/5/07Follow @wroush

The bad news in a jobs study released last week by the Massachusetts Institute for a New Commonwealth is that Massachusetts lags every state in the nation save Michigan when it comes to creating new jobs. Manufacturing in the state has been in especially bad shape since the 2001 recession, leading to worries that, as the MassINC report puts it, a “boutique economy” is emerging “with great rewards for those with the requisite levels of education and skills and fewer options for everyone else.”

The good news from Xconomy’s own recent interviews with a host of area firms—if you happen to be one of those people with the requisite education and skills—is that the information-technology section of the boutique is booming. Human-resources managers at IT firms in the Boston area say they’re hiring more people than at any time since the feverish dot-com days. Demand is so great, in fact, that many companies say they’re having to pull out all the stops to find qualified job candidates—and the situation is getting worse (or better, depending on which side of the hiring fence you’re on).

“It’s absolutely harder to hire great people than it was a couple years ago,” says Microsoft’s Reed Sturtevant, who’s setting up a special innovation group based out of Microsoft’s new digs in Cambridge. Part of the problem is that so many big companies are trying to staff up their Boston-area operations all at once: while Microsoft is hiring aggressively, so are many other companies Xconomy has talked with recently, including Google, Akamai, IBM, and EMC. But “the competition I still see more of as I’m trying to pry people loose to join me is the startup world,” Sturtevant says, citing the boom in young Internet and software companies. “It’s very active.”

“The market feels like it did back in 1999 or 2000,” says Mark Minichiello, director of global recruiting at Cambridge-based Akamai. The networking company is nearly doubling the size of its Kendall Square headquarters and expects to hire over 300 people globally in 2008, about half of them in Cambridge. “You have to have a machine-like recruiting infrastructure to deliver those kinds of numbers,” Minichiello says.

And the machine is having to work harder. Executives say that fewer good resumes are circulating, partly because the most talented workers are getting snapped up faster—before they even have a chance to polish up their resumes. (Joe Chung, CEO of e-commerce startup Allurent, tells us that when he finds talented candidates, he has to make an offer—and a good offer—right away. Otherwise, they’re gone.) There’s also a shortage of generalists who have mastery of all the technologies that go into running a modern technology company. Hiring IT support people, for instance, has been a “real challenge,” says Jason Gasdick, owner of employment consulting firm Gasdick & Company and interim vice president of talent at Sermo, a Cambridge-based online community for physicians. “What was good three years ago really isn’t so hot now.”

A few companies are still lucky enough to have the pick of the litter, though, enabling them to bring on people as they’re needed. “I feel like I have complete control over my growth rate,” says Stephen Vinter, engineering director and site manager for Google’s Cambridge lab, which has expanded from a handful of employees to more than 100 in the last year. “We’re only limited by the number of people we can effectively absorb,” Vinter says.

But for everyone else, it’s important to have a range of strategies in place to find the best candidates. In talking with recruiters and HR executives around Boston, we’ve heard a few tactics mentioned repeatedly. So here’s a brief Xconomy guide to the best thinking on hiring amidst the IT talent crunch.

Use every recruiting outlet available.

“You need every channel operating so you can find that talent wherever it exists,” says Akamai’s Minichiello. That means, among other things, attending college job fairs, plastering campuses with posters, bringing on consultants and contractors, moving temps into permanent roles where possible, and … Next Page »

Wade Roush is Chief Correspondent and Editor At Large at Xconomy. You can subscribe to his Google Group or e-mail him at wroush@xconomy.com. Follow @wroush

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