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IT renaissance employees wanted

Small and medium-sized businesses face tougher challenges when hiring employees than larger companies. But some of those challenges do have silver linings.

Scott Lowe knows what he wants. He's just not sure he'll be able to find it.

Lowe, the director of information technology at Elmira College in Elmira, N.Y., has three staff positions open, but he said it's hard to find what he needs: smart people who don't mind wearing a lot of different professional hats and who can hack the pay scale of a small academic institution.

"It's hard to find broad skill sets," he said. "We look for specialists who are generalists. We want them to be good at their core competency, but they need to bring a little more to the table as well."

Lowe's dilemma is typical of the small and medium-sized business (SMB) career world, where CIOs look for employees who are more than deep experts in one subject. In the SMB world, the ability to do more than one job is a necessity. "I've got three people on my network services team, and they handle firewall security, packet shaping, some support, e-mail, server maintenance, desktop updates and the administrative side of all applications," Lowe said.

Lowe is in good company. According to several industry experts in the SMB hiring field, small to medium-sized businesses want to get at least two for the price of one when they make a hire. "In the SMB segment, they are looking for individuals that can fill a couple roles," said Charlie Jones, vice president of operations at Philadelphia-based Yoh Services LLC, an executive recruitment, consulting and outsourcing company. "They want folks who can get their hands in multiple projects and technologies."

This is in direct contrast with the needs of larger companies, where specialization in one narrow niche is seen as more the norm. Instead of learning one or two modules of the enterprise resource planning system very thoroughly, SMB IT folks are asked to think outside the box, said Cal Braunstein, chairman and CEO/executive director of research at Westport, Conn.-based Robert Frances Group Inc. "SMBs need somebody who is willing to expand his roles and responsibilities. You can't just hire new people solely to fill the specialties; you need people who can fill the gaps," he said.

This translates beyond skill set into personality and attitude, Braunstein said. "SMBs need people who have entrepreneurship and a willingness to go forward and tackle large roles and tasks," he said.

This includes a tighter and more interactive relationship with the business side. "An IT pro at a small-to-midsize business needs a much broader understanding of business needs and how they fit within the general business strategy," said Neill Hopkins, vice president of skills development at The Computing Technology Industry Association Inc. (CompTIA), based in Oakbrook Terrace, Ill.

For example, because Lowe's hires will have so much interaction within the user community, the interview process involves conversations with folks from the academic and administrative staff. "We want somebody with good communication skills who can be an ambassador for IT," Lowe said. "They have to interview with IT and tons of different departments. We want input from them on whether this person can communicate. If not, he or she isn't going to be a good fit."

The pay scale

While the general perception is that the SMB market pays less than similar jobs at larger companies, the pay scale is surprisingly competitive, said Yoh's Jones. "With supply and demand being what it is, SMBs can't be too far behind the curve. Perhaps the benefits aren't as lucrative, but what you lack in benefits you can make up for in exposure," he said.

"There's a bigger salary gap in the management ranks," Braunstein said. "Take the extreme -- Goldman Sachs is paying their CIO $1 million a year. You don't see midsized companies doing that."

I like being an IT director at an SMB because I can still keep my hands in lots of things.

Scott Lowe, director of information technology, Elmira College

SMB IT management does offer a great growth opportunity, however, as managers can take ownership of projects in a way not usual in bigger companies. In fact, this can be a big attraction to many people, Braunstein said. "One of the highest motivators isn't money, but job satisfaction. If you feel like you're making a difference and can leap into the breach to do things without penalization, it's very rewarding," he said.

That multifaceted job description is one of the attractions for Lowe. "I like being an IT director at an SMB because I can still keep my hands in lots of things," he said.

SMBs, while competitive for the jobs they do post, still remain somewhat cash strapped in their ability to fully field all the IT people they'd like. As such, the third-party and contract work market is a popular avenue within the SMB segment. "Many SMBs aren't able to hire a full-time IT professional, so they'll look for consultant types to come in and work on projects," said Gretchen Koch, director of the sales development program at CompTIA. Typical contract work candidates are hired for projects that will last less than a year, and will not need the expertise once the project is complete.

The contract route can be a viable one for people looking for a way into a smaller company, Braunstein said, as companies sometimes view workers on contract as being on probation. "You can test them out to see if they'll fit in your culture, and you can keep them or let them go without the expense of having brought them on board permanently," he said.

An IT career at an SMB has promise, but isn't up everybody's alley. Knowing whether or not it'll be a good fit is a matter of personal taste, and each job seeker should have the self knowledge to make this decision, Jones said. "It's a matter of preference. Some people like the prestige of working for a big-name firm, others don't. Similar technology, different environments," he said.

Carol Hildebrand is a contributing writer based in Wellesley, Mass.

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