Having trouble finding IT staff? Join the club.

While the overall job market has taken a hit from the economy, demand for IT professionals is still going strong. According to at least one industry source, the current U.S. unemployment rate for IT professionals and engineers is 2 to 2.5 percent, well below the national unemployment rate of 5.5 percent in May 2008, the latest figures available from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

One factor keeping unemployment rates so low is a serious shortage of IT professionals with sought-after skills, says Crystal Shephard, a senior recruiter with the Huntington Beach, California office of Manpower Professional, the professional recruiting arm of the national contingent staffing agency. “There are just not a lot of people going into that line of work,” Shephard says.

With IT skills in such demand, small and mid-sized businesses need to be creative to fill positions when they open, including recruiting from within, using outside agencies to recruit for them, and outsourcing IT positions to third parties, Shephard and other IT industry and recruiting experts say.

Hot IT jobs

According to a June 2008 survey from Robert Half Technology, of 1,400 chief information officers at U.S. companies with 100 or more employees, 14 percent expected to add IT staff during the third quarter, while only 4 percent planned staff reductions. In the survey, Robert Half Technology, a technology consultant and IT staffing firm, found that CIOs were most interesting in hiring IT professionals with the following skills:

  • Windows administration (Server 2000/2003)
  • Desktop support
  • LAN and WAN network administration

Separately, Network World, an IT industry publication, recently reported that demand is also great for IT professional with experience in Web 2.0 technologies such AJAX and XML, network operating systems such as Windows Server and Linux, and IP and Internet skills.

Word of mouth, contracting, and outsourcing

So how does a small company compete for sought-after talent?

Start in house. The first thing companies can do when there’s an opening is alert their employees, so they can tap into their circle of friends, acquaintances, and former work colleagues to see if anyone’s interested in the job, recruiting and IT industry sources say. Some companies offer bonuses to employees whose referrals lead to a hire.

Use online social networks. Spreading the word that you’re hiring is easier than ever now that so many people use Facebook, LinkedIn and Plaxo, Twitter and other online social networks to stay in touch, says Katie Tierney, recruiting manager at nGenera, a 537-person Austin, Texas, company that makes a suite of Web-based business software.

Tierney is especially fond of Twitter, the combination micro-blogging and social networking service. “I’ll say on Twitter that I’m looking for a Ruby on Rails developer,” someone who specializes in the Web application development software, Tierney explains. “If someone follows my tweets or uses an aggregator to look for pieces of info on things like Ruby on Rails, they’ll contact me.” Tierney says she’s picked up some good prospects through Twitter though she hasn’t hired any of them yet.

Small businesses that use Twitter or social networks for recruiting are showing how tech savvy they are and that’s another way to attract IT professionals, says Jason Averbook, CEO of Knowledge Infusion, a 50-person Minneapolis consulting firm that helps Fortune 500 corporations plan human-resources technology strategies. Averbook has recently posted job openings on Facebook and other social networks and “I’ve had people say the fact that you’re posting this on Facebook, you’re the kind of organization I want to work for,” he says.

Hire an outside staffing firm. Recruiters at staffing firms such as Manpower Professional and Robert Half Technology work with companies of all sizes to fill open positions. Like those two firms, many have separate divisions to staff  IT and other white-collar or professional jobs. At Manpower Professional, recruiters help companies find full-time employees, or fill positions on a contract basis. In those instances, IT workers are employees of Manpower, which takes care of things like payroll taxes and benefits. To find IT workers, Shephard uses online networks, posts jobs on job boards, contacts college alumni associates and works with her existing networking contacts. “We also have a pretty rich database that we use,” she says.

Outsource. Some small businesses might not need a large full-time IT staff, or their IT needs are limited to occasional projects or upgrades. In that case, they may be better off outsourcing most or all IT functions to a third party such as external iT or Binary Science, sources say.

Small businesses shouldn’t automatically assume that they’ll lose out if they go up against a much bigger business for the same job candidates. Some IT professionals, especially if they’re in the Gen Y age group, would rather work for a small company with a better work/life balance than a large one where they’d be expected to put in lots of overtime, says Shephard, with Manpower Professional. Offering flex-time, on-site child care, flu shots and regular health and wellness days are other perks could also persuade a candidate to join a smaller company, she says.