9 out of 10 Technical Expert quits could be avoided
Summary: Every department head, leading a team of technical subject matter experts, has one thing on their mind: why are we losing our best people?
Written by Darin Fox 09 Aug 2022

Every department head, leading a team of technical subject matter experts, has one thing on their mind: why are we losing our best people?

The solution:

  1. Understand who in your organisation actually creates and executes on innovation

  2. Be clear about the complex web of motivations that make SMEs leave

  3. Have a Great Retention Strategy

By Darin Fox and Alistair Gordon, Expertunity

Quit rates at historic highs

It’s not just you who’s feeling it. Quit rates, where employees leave organisations voluntarily, are at historic highs across the world.

The latest Australian stats reveal 22% of professionals changed jobs in the year to February 2022. The equivalent rate from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics is 33%. Yet the demand for STEM roles (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) is projected to grow by 12.9% in the next five years - more than twice that of non-STEM occupations.

The need for a rethink of Retention Strategies has never been so urgent.

The stats

  • 22% of professionals changed jobs last year

  • Demand for STEM roles to grow by 12.9% in next 5 years

  • 9 out of 10 employees who leave weren’t actively looking for a job, but accepted another role when approached

  • 52% of voluntary quits are avoidable

Why are experts leaving?

The appreciation of technical talent in the market has risen exponentially – note raised salaries and sign on payments. Under-valuation in the past may be influencing this to some extent.

Many technical team leaders will have argued pay increases for fabulous talent but been blocked because subject experts don’t have anyone reporting to them – an almost medieval approach to technical talent policy.

RELATED ARTICLE: Is your organization losing the War for Technical talent?

But salary is only one part of this complex equation. Gallup reports that, in the US, only 1 in 10 employees recruited in the past three months were actively looking for a job. That’s a 57% increase in employees being poached.

Let’s pause: this means that many voluntary quits could have been avoided, if the current employer was more proactive.

The worldwide data suggests employees explore new opportunities because they:

  • It’s easier to get a pay rise by changing organisations than by applying for one where they are

  • Feel a high level of workload burnout, and don’t see their organisation making headway in solving the problem

  • Are seduced by claims of greater holistic wellness policies in the recruiting company - more work flexibility, shorter working hours, greater investment in their development are obvious enticements.

The specifics for Subject Matter Experts

Our research at Expertunity – where in the past few years we’ve worked closely with more than 2000 technical subject matter experts - shows SMEs feel they:

  • Lack voice and impact in their organisation

  • Add mission critical value that is unrecognised

  • Are second class citizens to people leaders

  • Subject to remuneration policies that discriminate against technical experts

  • Are at the end of the queue when it comes to skills and expertise development

  • Face discrimination - only 16% of roles in the STEM workforce are occupied by women, and they leave these roles at four times the rate of men.

Gallup reports that over 52% of voluntary quits are avoidable.

Great Retention Strategy 5 Step Answer

Step 1: Re-attraction of critical talent

  • Understanding the true cost of replacement

Technical leaders often report that voluntary quits take them by surprise. This is due to the active poaching organisations are undertaking to fill their vacancies. The mindset every Technical Leader needs to adopt is that everyone on their top technical talent list is a flight risk. Imagine they’ve already resigned. What would it take to retain them?

Understanding the true cost of replacement is critical to technical leaders’ ability to argue for retention investments in current technical talent. Because the cost of recruitment is often spread across many budget codes, the actual cost is often invisible.

Consider these impacts not factored into finance or HR department churn costings:

  • The replacement will likely have to be offered a higher salary

  • The finder’s fee - ranging from 20-30% of salary

  • Onboarding costs – training, induction, non-work downtime – equivalent to a month of non-work (a further 8.5% of salary)

  • Getting up to speed cost – this doesn’t appear on any budget but directly impacts departmental productivity. It isn’t just the lost effectiveness of the incumbent, but the added pressure a new hire adds to those team members who have to pick up the slack – which also increases the likelihood these people might leave.

With this understanding of the real costs, it’s possible to recalibrate the value of retaining key technical talent. And, have the business case to free the funds and resources to start re-attraction conversations.

Step 2. Increase the impact, voice, leadership of experts

  • Leadership can come from anywhere a solution is found

  • Development of SME enterprise skills

Experts will leave your organisation if they feel they’ll make a larger difference at a more enlightened organisation - where they’ll be more than just a provider of reports or technical fixes, or influence strategic decisions in your competitor’s leadership team.

STEM experts are increasingly important to our organisations, our communities and our planet.

Enterprises with a view to the future are redefining the role of leadership. Away from a top-down hierarchy, leadership can come from anywhere a solution is found. It’s no longer about the number of people managed. Success will be found in cultures that empower talented technical experts in decision making authority and budget setting. And where remits are expanded based on the innovation and value an employee brings.

Doing this requires development of enterprise skills for technical experts.

RELATED ARTICLE: What are Enterprise skills?

Technical experts are often frustrated by a lack of strategic training. Technical training can be expensive, but this is a short-sighted view reinforced by short-term budgets and shorter-term company profit targets. There’s a scarcity of personal development options covering non-technical skills that are designed for the expert audience.

The ‘easy’ solution is to enrol SMEs in an existing in-house leadership course or nominate them for internal high-potential programs for future people leaders. In our experience, these don’t work and can even be counterproductive. Leading and influencing through expertise is its own unique skill and technique. Programs like Mastering Expertship are designed to leverage this uniqueness.

By investing in the development of technical experts you’ll slow attrition rates because they feel valued. Plus, they’ll be increasingly capable of more fulfilling work.

Step 3. Address antiquated career and pay settings for SMEs

  • Create a Guru Class remuneration and career structure

If your remuneration policies require top technical talent to manage people before they can move up to an executive pay band, you’ll never be able to retain them.

Innovative organisations are addressing this by creating a Guru Class remuneration and career structure. This simultaneously elevates the status of technical talent in the organisation and increases retention rates. Expertunity’s foundational work in this area has seen the value proven by many clients. The production of a capability framework for the three levels of technical expertise Specialist, Expert, and Master Expert), underpins Guru Class career and pay structures.

The payoff for early adoption of these enlightening strategies is transformational.

Step 4. Decrease technical cohort stress

  • Triage projects and responsibilities

  • Over hire

Overwhelming workload and the accompanying stress and burnout, allied with an employee population that is or has been quite sick in recent years, exacerbates the churn.

We’ve identified two strategies to combat this workplace pressure:

  • Prioritise projects that really move the needle. Empower senior technical leaders to push back on execution demands that aren’t properly resourced by the organisation.

  • Over hire. Technical teams have been asked to do too much with too little for years. It’s time to redress the balance. Adding team members is the single most impactful action an organisation can take to acknowledge and reduce the workload expert teams have been under. New people bring new ideas and energy to the team, and also reduce the impact of those who may leave in the future.

Step 5. Aggressively address diversity imbalance

  • Accept flexible work practices

  • No gender pay gap policy

  • Leveraging difference

Only 16% of roles requiring STEM skills in Australia are filled by women - compared to 50% in the overall workforce. They face one of the highest gender pay gaps at 24%, the overall average is a shameful 14%. Almost one-third of women in STEM roles, below the age of 35, plan to leave their profession, stating poor pay, poor career opportunities and poor working conditions as the most common reasons.

If your organisation’s technical functions are predominately male, you need to take a forensic look at the workforce practices, culture and policies that reinforce biases against women.

To attract and retain women in technical roles you must have women to act as mentors and role models. Acceptance of flexible work practices and a commitment to a transparent no gender pay gap policy are stamps of genuine change.

The broader diversity issue is about ensuring each person can contribute their best in an organisation that seeks to fully leverage the strengths of every individual. Different ways of thinking, ways of working, ways of leading and ways of playing need to be embraced. As complexity increases and access to skills become more competitive, leveraging diversity is key.

No longer can people be forced to fit under outdated management structures and policies. The most successful organisations will focus on mobilising and accessing talent and leadership in all its forms, regardless of where it exists in their ecosystem.

The business case for a new look management of SMEs

Who is it in the organisation who actually creates and executes on innovation? In nearly every case it will be SMEs.

It’s time for senior leadership teams and boards to acknowledge the role of technical experts, and resource them appropriately.

Steps 1 and 2 of a Great Retention Strategy are initiatives - that leaders of technical teams, in concert with organisational development professionals - can be completed in your organisation within four weeks. For urgent and immediate gains.

Steps 3 to 5 are cultural shifts that will be super charged by the switching on of Steps 1 and 2. This fast tracked transformation will make you stand out in the crowd as people experts and set up your organisation for a vibrate future.

Start seducing your people back into the fold today.

More articles for Technical Leaders (The Technical Leader Blog) or Organisational Development Leaders (The Expert Talent Blog).

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