How CIOs can guard against a tech skills exodus

As economies reopen around the world, the tech skills crisis is hitting epic proportions. How can CIOs compete for employees? 


CIOs have long grappled with tech skills shortages. But as economies recover around the world, the recruitment challenge is reaching new heights. 

The pandemic resulted in a lot of projects being put on hold, notes John Nash, founder and chairman of tech recruitment agency Nicholson. But as budgets are released again, it’s creating a raft of new jobs and vacancies. 

That’s not the only challenge. Lockdowns unleashed a wave of digital transformation that continues today, further boosting demand for talent. 

And in the UK, the exodus of tech skills since the Brexit referendum has been a key issue, one that’s “had a major impact”, says Nash.

To make matters worse, as many as 82% of the 2,120 senior technology decision-makers surveyed globally for Harvey Nash Group’s 2021 Digital Leadership Report believe the pandemic has in many instances changed employee priorities, which include wanting a better work-life balance. Staff retention is more difficult as a result. 

The problem is now so severe that just over two thirds of the CIOs questioned are unable to keep up with the change their business requires due to a lack of available talent. Skills in particularly short supply include cybersecurity (43%), demand for which has risen by 23% over the last 12 months alone; big data and data analytics (40%) and technical architects (34%).

What employees want

So what’s the answer to the “Great Resignation”, as it’s called in the US? Getting into salary bidding wars is rarely the answer, even at a time of rampant wage inflation, warns Nash. 

“If you ask people to put their priorities in order, money is nearly always ranked at three or four,” he says. “But in tech, you find managers or founders focus too much on that and less on the things that create job satisfaction, which most people put at number one.”

Number two on the list is generally career development, Nash adds, while location and job security are often interchangeable with pay. 

In tech, you find managers or founders focus too much on money and less on the things that create job satisfaction, which most people put at number one

Failing to truly understand what makes staff tick means employers also fail to tackle the underlying causes of any dissatisfaction – and why employees want to leave.

Sandeep Sakharkar is CIO of global contract logistics company GXO Logistics, managing a team of 1,000 people. He thinks there are four considerations for engaging, motivating and retaining tech workers. 

The first is to create an authentic culture in which people actually want to work, while also feeling that they’re doing something meaningful. Part of this means ensuring everyone – including the CIO – lives and breathes the company’s values and purpose so they permeate through all areas of activity. “It’s important that values are seen in action,” he says.

A key element here is engaging on an emotional level with staff through clear and regular communication at a group and/or personal level. If personal, two-way communication isn’t possible with everyone, it’s vital to create an effective management tier below the CIO.

The second factor relates to staff recognition and reward, which must be linked to tangible outcomes. This means not only giving praise where praise is due, but also responding to good ideas and ensuring employees feel empowered to express them.

Next, provide a structured learning and development programme that caters effectively to the needs of both the individual and the business. This is linked to the fourth and final piece of the puzzle: ensuring effective, tailored career development and a clear career path. 

“Attrition is a reality for everyone and it’s impossible not to have it,” Sakharkar says. “So to succeed today, you really need to have a structured, intentional focus on all of these four areas, and also track your programmes to see how they’re performing against objectives.”

Challenging work

Mark Murphy is director of HR at BT’s Technology business, which employs about 11,000 people. He thinks that in the technical community, there’s a close link between staff retention and offering interesting and challenging work. 

While you’ve got to be credible on compensation and other basic requirements, “the intrinsic nature of the work, the opportunity to create something new, and the culture and purpose of the business are the elements that make employees want to stay,” he says. “People tell us that it’s keeping them stretched that keeps them here, which includes the opportunity to learn new skills and work in different parts of the business.”

The old adage that ‘people don’t leave companies, they leave managers’ is as true today as it ever was, especially in tech

But Murphy believes CIOs themselves also have a major role to play in retention terms. 

“An inspirational tech leader is super-important both internally and externally,” he says. “Externally, building pride in what the team is doing helps build momentum and recognition of achievements, but internally it’s about inspiring people and setting the tone for what meaningful work is.”

Nash agrees. “The old adage that ‘people don’t leave companies, they leave managers’ is as true today as it ever was, especially in tech, as all too often people with strong technical skills are put in charge of people without necessarily being the best people managers,” he says. 

As a result, Nash believes the secret to retention is understanding why employees might want to leave and creating an atmosphere in which they want to stay.

“It’s about getting the management team right because if people feel valued, listened to and recognised for what they do, if they have a good work-life balance and a clear career path, they won’t leave as they’ll know they’re working for a great employer.”