Strategies to survive the talent war in the cloud’s third wave

After working 15 years in talent strategy, recruiting and people operations for tech and IT consulting companies, I thought I had seen pretty much all there was to see when it came to trends in hiring. Then the universe laughed. Cue 2020, the year that changed the world, trapped us in our homes, and created unemployment levels we hadn’t seen since the Great Depression.

Now in 2021, we’re seeing demand for nearly everything come rushing back – especially demand for tech talent. Nearly everyone is short-staffed, but the problem is particularly significant for professional services companies, whose revenue correlates directly to having the right people to do the work. Cleveland Research estimates that many technology service partners are already 20-25% short on the people needed to deliver on their existing book of business.

With customer demand coming back faster than expected in some regions, and COVID still causing devastation in regions with a high concentration of tech talent like India, service providers are fighting a war to attract and keep top talent. Many companies are throwing money at the problem by raising salaries, instituting referral and signing bonuses, etc. This may be a necessary tactic given the current state of things, but there are other things companies can do to attract top talent that may have a more lasting effect on their employer brand. Before I go there though, let’s talk about how we got here.

What is driving the war for talent?

Even the companies who emerged from 2020 successful were cautious about hiring throughout last year, unsure of how the pandemic would impact their businesses and what a recovery would look like. On the flip side, employees were equally uncertain. Even those employees who had survived rounds of layoffs chose not to make job moves last year, sticking with the job they had so they could focus on juggling the unique nuances of the pandemic, like home schooling.

All that pent up demand is now being released as the economy recovers. Tech companies are resuming growth, with many seeing a huge spike in demand from customers that put off projects during the pandemic. The hiring required to keep up with demand, combined with the layoffs, furloughs and lack of hiring from the last year, means we’re now seeing 18 months worth of hiring squeezed into a few quarters – often from the same pool of candidates.

This is happening at the same time employees are feeling more optimistic and are starting to make the career moves they’ve been putting off for the past 12-18 months. Prudential’s Pulse on the American Worker Survey estimates that 1 in 4 workers is planning to look for new opportunities once the pandemic is over. While this data isn’t tech-specific or services-specific, it does point to a growing trend that seems to already be taking place when I see the growing attrition rates happening in firms.

While this supply and demand imbalance might feel incredibly acute right now, the challenges associated with hiring experienced and motivated tech talent will remain for years to come. Tercera’s recent ebook on the Third Wave of cloud computing points to a growing digital skills gap that cloud consultancies will need to address in the coming years.

This is why it’s time to rethink the way you recruit for talent, not only to get through our current talent situation but to prepare for the future. This new generation of talent has been shaped forever by a global pandemic, and convincing them to join a company now requires far more thought and finesse than simply throwing money at them and offering free food for offices they may not even visit.

Three trends changing recruiting in a post-COVID era

The interview process has accelerated.

In the past, even candidates for remote positions would typically come into the office for in-person interviews at the final stages of the process. Today, most companies have gone to all-virtual interviewing. This opens things up to move a lot faster, even if a candidate is interviewing with the same number of people as they would have before. It also means people can interview with many more companies at once from the convenience of their computer screen, allowing them to assess their options and the market more thoroughly. While these virtual-only interviews may get balanced out with in-person conversations post COVID, it’s unlikely we’ll ever see a full return to the old way of interviewing. Nor should we.

Candidates are all in on loving what they do.

For many, 2020 caused a perspective shift because it showed us just how short life is. People are rethinking their priorities; in response, employers need to meet candidates where they are, learning about what that individual is looking for. It’s more important than ever that recruiters can connect job tasks with a greater purpose – both for the company and for the candidate.

Companies may need to rethink offers.

Salaries for some of the most skilled or niche employees are already high, but the gap between supply and demand is boosting them further. While many companies default to boosting salary offers when fighting for top talent, they must balance this with offering other attractive benefits to lure people in. Otherwise, they risk having new hires stall out on pay once they arrive, because they came in at the top of the salary range. Companies are realizing they need to hire and develop instead of simply looking to find that unicorn candidate with the perfect set of skills and hoping they’ll stick around.

It’s time to build your employer brand

Companies need to build a brand that extends beyond one that customers want to work with, to one that employees want to work for. This is especially important for people-based businesses. You won’t have too many happy customers without great people to support them. When I counsel my clients at Cultivate Talent, I recommend they bring together the following elements to create a brand, story and processes to attract top talent in a post-COVID world.

Start with your purpose

People are looking for purpose and connection – a reason to work for your company beyond compensation. Make sure your organization, and everyone in your organization, understands why you do what you do and make it a core element of your employer brand perspective. This will have an impact far beyond just recruiting. Telling this story and how this purpose looks in practice on your website, in your meetings, on your social feeds and across future content will help you build a pipeline of candidates you can tap into 3-12 months from now. In the end, it’s important to convey the greater impact you’re trying to have beyond the services you offer.

Create an army of brand ambassadors

While you may not know it, your employees are the best and most credible advocates for your brand. They can become ambassadors by expressing their passion for your company and its work through their own social media posts, which is one great way to generate energy and interest. You can help your employees do this by creating content they can share. However, be sure you leave it open for them to preserve authenticity in what they say. That will resonate better than any produced message ever could.

Focus on culture

This one should already be at the top of your recruiting strategy but it’s becoming even more important. People are craving connection—particularly if they’re working virtually. Professional services firms will have to talk more than ever about their vision and values, centering their business and their people around these ideals. More companies are ensuring their job postings link to passion and fulfillment, telling stories through their current employees’ voices, sharing what they’ve done to make an impact in the last year and focusing on how they led their people and their businesses during 2020 or what it feels like to work there .

Change your recruiting mindset

Just as people should nurture their networks and not tap into them only when they need something, companies need to do the same. Don’t only reach out to people when you have an open role. Instead, create regular opportunities for people who are interested in your company to learn about you and what you’re doing. Create the expectation within your organization that recruiting is every leader’s job – not just HR’s. People go to work with people, especially in a services business, so capitalize on that and deploy your incredible leaders to bring in more top talent.

Rethink benefits

While candidates don’t make their decisions solely based on benefits, offering competitive and unique options can make them stay once they’ve come onboard. Unique benefits like four-day work weeks, more all-company holidays where everyone has off so people can actually tune out, or giving people paid time away from work to serve in their community are attractive and hard to replace.

Benefits should also prioritize mental health, self-care and wellbeing. Historically, mental health benefits have been overlooked or buried within an overall benefits package. Today, employees expect their companies to care about their health holistically, extending past traditional medical benefits to include gym and wellness memberships, free access to various mental health apps and more.

Optimize for remote work

It’s unclear whether the shift to “work from anywhere” will remain as companies shift to hybrid models or even a return to full-time, office-based positions. However, firms that optimize their operations for a virtual workforce, and who make in-person attendance the exception rather than the rule, will be much better prepared to recruit for the future.

The coming year will be both exciting and challenging for our entire industry. I hope this advice can make your recruiting efforts even more successful, although keep in mind, recruiting is only the first half of the battle. Once you’ve got talent in the door, the real work begins to ensure they stay engaged and enthusiastic to ensure your long-term success. Stay tuned for more insights on how to keep employees happy and connected to your mission once they’re onboard.

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