"How to Keep Me"-Retaining Technical Professionals

By Kochanski, James; Ledford, Gerald | Research-Technology Management, May 2001 | Go to article overview

"How to Keep Me"-Retaining Technical Professionals


Kochanski, James, Ledford, Gerald, Research-Technology Management


These 15 predictors of retention can help, but first you need to collect data from your own scientists and engineers.

Staff turnover is a concern almost everywhere as the demand for talent begins to outstrip the supply. However, turnover in R&D is particularly damaging because of the disruption to projects and because technical and scientific staff are hard to replace. The key to retaining scientific and technical staff is to understand the real cost of turnover and the causes of turnover from the employee's point of view. Only then can remedies be designed and applied in ways that will yield a positive return on investment.

By technology and scientific professionals, we mean knowledge workers whose work is governed primarily by their own expertise rather than by a routine or system. We exclude executives, who typically have very different responsibilities and a very different reward system than professionals. We also exclude administrative staff, customer service and other job families that may exist in an R&D environment but have less professional discretion or less portable intellectual capital. Our definition of scientific and technical professionals includes both individual contributors and lower and middle management. Included are software designers, research scientists, most types of engineers, and product and project managers.

Our perspective on managing turnover of technical and scientific staff comes from consulting with companies in pharmaceutical, computing, networking, medical products, electronics, and other industries. We have also gained insights by conducting a study of North American workers to understand how employees view the rewards of their work. This study, The Rewards of Work[SM]: What Employees Value, was co-sponsored by Nextera, Sibson Consulting Group and WorldatWork (formerly, the American Compensation Association). It focuses on the attitudes of full-time employees in the private-sector work force, investigating scientific and technical employees' attitudes in detail. Additionally, the Industrial Research Institute and Sibson conducted an online survey of IRI member companies to assess their turnover rates in R&D and the actions they are taking to control turnover.

The Changing Environment

The basic nature of the technical and scientific professional has not suddenly changed, but the environment around them has. Three key changes have made these professionals more important as a corporate asset:

1. Technological and scientific advances are coming to market more quickly, and the company that misses the window loses the pricing and profit premium available to market leaders. In many companies, science and technology has eclipsed marketing, finance and even sales as the critical employee segment. These professionals can create the franchise for company growth and are increasingly sought after by established corporations or pre-IPO start-ups.

2. Supply has not kept up with the demand for these professionals, and it will likely get worse as the baby boomers begin to retire.

3. The web has made career mobility and pay information so easy to access that even the most passive job hunters can hardly avoid learning about more lucrative positions.

These factors have changed the expectations and realities of technology and science professionals, and employers must respond in order to avoid an exodus of these key talents.

Underestimating Turnover Costs

Many companies have difficulty measuring the cost of turnover because the information is hard to get and the true costs hit many different budgets. This may be one of the reasons why it is hard to find out who is responsible for managing turnover in some organizations. The R&D manager knows that it is difficult to meet milestones with positions vacant, but has no way of estimating the impact of turnover on revenue and earnings. This sometimes causes R&D managers to use turnover to help stay within salary budgets even while the corporation is hungry for the revenue from new products. …

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