Magazine article Workforce Management

Minnesota Life Takes the Long View on IT Hiring and Training

Magazine article Workforce Management

Minnesota Life Takes the Long View on IT Hiring and Training

Article excerpt

It bypasses "techie-geeks," trains like mad, promotes from within and reaps the benefits in skill and loyalty

OVER THE PAST FEW YEARS, corporate IT departments have trimmed budgets, staffs and perks as steadily as the NASDAQ has lost points. In contrast, IT workers at Minnesota Life, the ninth largest group-life insurance company in the United States, are feeling pretty secure. The 124-year-old firm has never laid off an IT worker. Period. While other budget-crunched companies jettisoned their IT college internship programs in recent years, Minnesota Life CIO Jean Delaney Nelson, who started at the firm in such a program herself some two decades ago, declared the project sacrosanct. And new employees are given two to three months of paid training, and occasionally even more, before they start to work.

That's one reason Minnesota Life was recently named the eighth best workplace for IT workers, according to the annual survey by Computerworld magazine. The company has top-notch benefits, such as a 401(k) plan with an employer match, life insurance, health and dental insurance, adoption assistance and scholarships for family members. If Minnesota Life spends more on training-$2,166 a year per IT employee versus $1,825 for the 99 other best employers in the Computerworld survey-it also expects more. The IT department must meet the demands of the aggressively expanding company, and it has won a batch of awards for its efforts. Koreen Theisen, company project manager for IT training, says that the amount ploughed into training is more than recouped by the company's high retention rate for skilled personnel. Turnover in the IT department averages 3 to 4 percent, about half the industry average.

Meta Group analyst Maria Schafer says that companies like Minnesota Life realize "training is a strategic way of keeping a high-performance IT workforce," and the insurance company won't suffer the costly and dramatic turnover that IT managers at other large companies are bracing for when the economy rebounds. The company maintains the equivalent of eight full-time trainers for the 397-person IT staff. Minnesota Life does not track the ROI of their new-hire training efforts, saying it would be difficult to judge the productivity of application developers. However, human resources representatives do estimate the cost at the start of each training project to ensure there is sufficient demand to justify the need for internal training support.

"TECHIE-GEEKS" NOT WANTED

Rather than using Internet job boards to find a senior manager positions, Minnesota Life hires entry-level employees and promotes from within. "We continually grow associates into future managers and technical leaders," CIO Nelson says. Currently, 19 percent of its IT staff has been promoted at some point.

In looking for prospective employees, Ann Wolbert, a human resources representative at Minnesota Life, says that a well-rounded background is as important to the company as technology aptitude. "We don't want the techie-geek," she says. "We want someone who has balanced academics, worked, done an internship and held a leadership position in some club or organization." She says that well-rounded people are better able to progress through Minnesota Life's IT dual managerial or technology tracts than those who have never taken their finger off a computer mouse. The company also focuses on recruiting job candidates from schools with strong liberal arts programs, which CIO Nelson believes produces students with superior communication and leadership skills.

As a result, new IT workers are as likely to have majored in math or music as computer science. (The patterns and rhythms in music tend to cultivate the kind of logical-thinking and problem-solving abilities that IT workers need, Nelson notes.) "At college job fairs, most companies just give away mugs and tell students to go online to find out about the company," Wolbert says. …

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