tech salaries

What does your top tech talent really want?

February 20, 2014: 11:26 AM ET

Employee turnover is at a post-recession high, and IT staffers are more restless than most. Keeping them will take money -- and more.

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FORTUNE -- For any company hoping to hang on to its stars these days, the odds are daunting. The number of people quitting their jobs climbed to new heights in December 2013, up 49% from a recessionary low of 3.4 million, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. At the same time, a survey of full-time employees by consultants BlessingWhite found that they're five times more likely to expect to quit in the next few months than to be laid off (84% to 16%).

Highly skilled IT people are the most restless of all. Even during the darkest days of the economic downturn, demand was such that unemployment among techies never exceeded 4%. Now that companies have stepped up hiring, tech employment site Dice.com's latest salary survey of more than 17,000 U.S. IT employees says two-thirds are "confident that they can find a new, better" job sometime this year.

With so many staffers eyeing the exits, it's no wonder that employers have started trying harder to hold on to them. One motivator is that old standby: money. "Tech managers are telling me they're stretching their budgets to keep their technology workforces satisfied," says Dice president Shravan Goli. The highest paid techies are in Silicon Valley, where the average IT salary is now $108,603 and annual bonuses average $12,458.

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Most of the other 10 biggest tech markets in the U.S. are also seeing raises. That includes Los Angeles ($95,815, up 4% in 2013), New York ($93,915, up 5%), and Philadelphia ($92,138, up 8%). Clearly, big data rules: Nine of the 10 highest paid skills are connected to it, with those adept at R and NoSQL reaping the highest pay, at $115,531 and $114,796 respectively.

If retaining top tech talent were as easy as just writing a bigger check, most employers could breathe easy. But alas, it's not that simple. "Money is nice, but it isn't everything," notes Goli. The one enticement that topped it in Dice's survey was "more interesting or more challenging assignments," which are often much harder to provide month in and month out, but techies' wish lists include other perks too: a promotion or a new title, flexible work hours, more training and certification courses, more recognition from top management, and -- especially in northern California and other traffic-clogged locales -- the chance to work from home.

Do those sound like the earmarks of a startup? It's no coincidence. "Big companies that want to keep tech talent can learn a lot from startups," Goli says. According to Dice's survey, fledgling enterprises tend to pay IT staff a little less. Salaries average $85,655, up just 1% in 2013, vs. a national average of $87,811, a 3% raise from the previous year. Yet 57% of startups' IT employees say they're satisfied with their pay, somewhat higher than the 54% of their big-company peers who say the same.

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The reason, Goli says, is that small companies "dig harder to find out what makes each individual tick, and personalize each person's job" to match the worker's interests and goals. "Startups are better than big companies at offering people not only lots of formal training and cutting-edge work but also clear career paths that are customized to each person." Newer companies also famously "let people loosen up and relax. Ping pong tables help."

The biggest difference between startups and their bigger brethren, he believes, is that bosses at small companies spend more time just talking with employees. "They're really good at developing people and growing talent in-house, which takes a constant, never-ending conversation," he says. At Dice, Goli aims to make sure employees know his door is always open, especially if anybody is dissatisfied: "I tell everybody here, 'If you're thinking about leaving, come and talk to me first. I'll do whatever I can to keep you.'"

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