Flight risk? High-tech talent set to take off post economic recovery

Expect valued employees – women in particular – to seek new employment following difficult economic times.

High-tech workers who endured salary reductions and added workloads will be looking for new jobs as an economic recovery gets underway, according to new research from Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology.

High-tech workers who endured cost-cutting measures such as salary reductions and added workloads will be looking for new jobs as an economic recovery gets underway, according to new research.

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"In the midst of the worst economic downturn in decades, CTOs and vice presidents of engineering were wondering how they can keep their top high-tech talent during layoffs and when they raised the issue with employees, the message was that people should just be happy to have a job in this tough time," says Caroline Simard, director of research and executive programs at the Anita Borg Institute and author of the industry organization's recent report "Retaining a Diverse Technical Pipeline During and After a Recession."

"But that mentality leads to high turnover rates, which often spike after an economic downturn due to cost-cutting and other barriers to advancement in the workplace," Simard says.

Companies that cut salaries, benefits and other perks such as professional development and mentoring programs could experience a loss in high-tech talent right when business could be poised for growth. Employees that have spent the past year cutting costs and working more, while losing personal time and restricting their own vacations out of fear of losing their income and livelihood, Simard says, will feel "disengaged and disenchanted" with employers.

"A loss of employee engagement threatens companies' ability to return to prosperity. Job security is one of the biggest predictors of employee engagement and widespread layoffs have hurt this engagement," the Anita Borg paper reads.

Gartner found that "unrelenting workload and stress" was viewed as the most significant barrier to achieving key objectives," followed by "blurred roles and responsibilities and inadequate supply of technical skills." Deloitte in 2009 reported in "Managing Talent in Turbulent Economy" that employee morale and trust in senior management took a turn for the worst. And research from Towers Perrin in 2008 showed that 38% of global employees felt disengaged or disenchanted and that 85% of those feeling disengaged planned to leave their companies.

"Employee engagement is down everywhere," Simard says.

While companies may have had little to worry about in terms of natural attrition during the height of the recession, as soon as the economy starts to recover, top high-tech talent will look for new employment, the research shows. Putting companies more at risk is the fact that remaining technology specialists in their organizations hold more knowledge than during better economic times when some roles overlapped or job duties experienced some redundancy, Simard explains.

"However a company defines its top performers, they are who employers would like to retain and who is more likely to be looking for work after the negative impact of recessionary measures," she says. "The more employees companies had to lay off, the more likely those that are left hold more critical knowledge core to their business."

Women, in particular, could be more inclined to seek new employment, the research suggests. Women often are part of a dual-income household, taking on primary responsibilities there. Loss of professional development, mentoring and flexibility in the workplace will drive women to find new jobs when the opportunity arises.

"Flexibility is a key point, but during the downturn, when everyone is afraid of losing their job, they stop asking for flexibility required for a work-life balance – and this change in culture impacts women more than men," Simard says. "Work-family conflict is one of the top reasons for turnover, for both men and women, but woman are more likely to experience that conflict directly."

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