Talent wars: How CIOs are striving to support digital goals
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Talent wars: How CIOs are striving to support digital goals

The rise of the digital economy has seen an intense scramble for technology talent. We ask the CIO of Columbia Sportswear about the new tactics needed to hook scarce IT skills.

The sourcing of scarce technology skills has always been a big challenge for CIOs. But in recent years, as digital innovation has fired up the ambitions of companies everywhere, acute shortages have started to thwart business opportunities and damage growth plans.

To pick just three areas that feature across recruitment surveys: big data analytics, where data scientists and Hadoop developers are gold dust; DevOps, where experts with skills in the arcane worlds of JIRA, Puppet or LISA can command big bucks; and private cloud, where virtualization talent is in perpetual demand.

The scramble for talent was clearly reflected in the IT Hiring Forecast for the first half of 2015 from recruitment firm Robert Half, which reported that two-thirds of the 2,400 CIOs surveyed said hiring tech professionals had become “very or somewhat challenging,” up from 61% in the same period in 2014.

That has created a fiercely competitive market, longer lead times to fill vacancies, inflated salary expectations among tech workers, and a resurgence of tactics such as unsolicited job offers and candidate bidding wars that were commonplace in the 1990s. Moreover, that situation is as true in Australia and Japan as it is in the US, Germany and the UK. By the year 2020, for example, the European Union projects a shortfall of 825,000 IT workers across the region.
Feeling the pain

All of this is forcing CIOs to use every tactic at their disposal to pull in the talent their organizations need — from signing bonuses and generous relocation allowances to aggressively pitching the quality of the working life at their particular location. It has also put a renewed emphasis on IT retention and increased productivity among existing IT workforces.

Fred Pond CIO Columbia Sportswear
Fred Pond, CIO at Columbia Sportswear

One CIO sharing in all this recruiting pain is Fred Pond at Columbia Sportswear, the outdoor clothing manufacturer and retailer headquartered in Portland, Oregon. His experiences with IT hiring this year are pretty typical of employers across industries.

“We have not seen it this hard. It’s a very tough market,” he says of his experiences trying to find talent to add to Columbia Sportswear’s IT roll call of 275. Indeed, a quick scan of the vacancies listed for Columbia’s corporate HQ in October 2015 showed that more than 40% of the open roles were in IT — ranging from SAP business analytics specialists to the head of data governance.

In some cases Pond had to cast the net outside the region playing extensively on Oregon’s reputation as one of the most attractive regions of the US in which to live. In others, the hiring gaps have been fill by searching within Columbia’s own business units, with cross-hiring and cross-training now a key recruiting and staff-development tool.
New initiatives, greater needs

Aside from the day-to-day operational demands on IT, Columbia has a number of initiatives underway that are driving such hiring.

The biggest, says Pond, is the re-implementation of the company’s “entire store and demand planning processes — everything from forecasting to key assortment planning. That will be rolled into Columbia’s global planning system, which brings everything together from a wholesale and retail perspective.”

The second major IT initiative involves the adoption of a workforce management system across North American stores, spanning new time-keeping, workforce scheduling and productivity management capabilities. As Pond explains: The company’s aging Stromberg time-and-attendance system is being “end-of-lifed” by the vendor, and that is being replaced by a much more sophisticated package from human capital management market leader Kronos. The fact that Stromberg was purchased by Kronos several years ago is making that transition easier, he says.

An upgrade to a robust workforce scheduling system was also overdue. “We were doing all our scheduling in Excel,” Pond says. Now, the implementation of “a true workforce planning and management tool” will enable Columbia to combine its time-keeping and scheduling information with sales history and other relevant data in one oversight tool.

“We’re seeing some people getting very competitive salary offers from multiple companies which ends up in bidding wars.”

he ideal job candidates to support such initiatives boast both technology expertise and retail sector experience. But in the current IT job market, if a candidate does have the right combination of skills, they often know their market value.

“We’re seeing some people getting very competitive salary offers, [often] from more than one company, which ends up in bidding wars,” Pond explains. And that sometimes means taking some dramatic action. “To convince those with scarcest skillsets to come on board, we’re back to giving signing bonuses,” Pond says. The related challenge is that new hires coming in on inflated salaries can disrupt annual budget plans by forcing a re-evaluation of existing salaries. Fortunately, he says, those occasions have been the exception, not the rule.

There is also an increased tendency to look for skills within the business, identifying individuals who have solid retail expertise and who might have the aptitude for — and interest in — an IT role.

In some cases, where that role is particularly technical, however, Pond has had to look much further afield. “We’re currently supporting three people to get Green Cards who were on work visas with a contracting agency. They’ve now switched their visas [to Columbia] and we are committed to help them through the long process of getting [permanent US residency status],” Pond says.
Leveraging the brand

In the recruitment wars, Columbia does have a few advantages over some other companies. Aside from playing on the renowned quality of life on offer in Oregon, Pond has found that one of the most important tools in recruiting IT talent is leveraging the brand and reputation of the company itself.

He argues that the best way to position the organization as an employer of choice is to focus on “a commitment to being a good place to work, with a decent balance between work and personal life.”

That corporate profile can take a long time to build, he says. “I’m lucky that Columbia is a 75-year old company with a very good reputation and a great culture.” And having the best talent creates a virtuous circle. “We’re successful and our technologies play a big part in our profitability. So it’s a great story.”

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