How to Win the War for Top STEM Talent

A happy STEM employee leans back in his chair.

STEM employees are demanding all kinds of adjustments from the finance industry, and talent-starved firms are scrambling to keep up.

Sometimes the employment market is skewed toward business, and other times it's skewed toward workers — but right now, it's a little of both. For the most part, the skills and experience needed to fill the finance industry's rank and file positions are converging, meaning that employees can be replaced or moved between positions as needed. The most crucial positions, however, tend to defy this trend, with STEM employees in particular gaining an inordinate amount of bargaining power in recent years. The finance industry has spent years trying to figure out how to attract the best from this elite talent pool, and more importantly how to keep it, and now there's finally enough real data to begin drawing up a plan.

Who STEM Employees Are

The first crucial point, as revealed by the ADP Research Institute¨ (ADP RI) report, The Evolution of Work 2.0: The Me vs. We Mindset, is that it is often more difficult to satisfy the demands of STEM workers than non-STEM workers. Their strident demands are not motivated by a lack of enthusiasm or happiness in their work — quite the opposite, in fact. "Overall, STEM workers feel more accomplished, motivated, valued, satisfied and recognized at work," ADP RI claims. "But, this does not mean that STEM workers are any more loyal." Rather, they tend to be by far the most proactive group of workers in seeking new opportunities, even if they rate their current employer highly.

That odd combination of satisfaction and ambition is indicative of another major aspect of STEM demographics: the growing preponderance of millennials in the STEM workforce. Executives across virtually every industry need to understand that millennials aren't important just because they're the largest cohort of employees today, but because they're quickly coming to wield the most bargaining power, on an individual basis. Millennials, particularly younger millennials, simply don't want the same things their parents did. So any business with a need for STEM workers must make at least a few changes to accommodate them.

What They Want

ADP RI found that STEM workers do not expect job security like other workers do. They believe they need to leave an organization in order to advance their careers. In addition, they are more confident in their abilities to find a new job and are more likely to reach for jobs outside their skillsets. They're more aware of outside opportunities and believe the future will bring them more flexibility.

It's not that STEM workers don't want job security. They generally believe that leaving an organization is key to their growth and are confident in their ability to find something new and potentially better. STEM workers are highly skilled workers and are in demand. They will likely be keeping an eye out for the best job for them, as opposed to other workers who may sense more risk if they leave.

In terms of salary, ADP RI notes how these workers are more motivated by perks like flexibility and telecommuting compared to non-STEM workers who are more concerned about benefits cost and work hours. STEM workers, and millennial workers in general, are looking to weave their work seamlessly into their larger lives, and to reduce the burden that work places on things like family, leisure and side projects. According to ADP RI, "flexibility" is one of the fastest-rising concerns for workers, one that remains far less important to baby boomer employees.

In their analysis, ADP RI report makes the implications for HR crystal clear: "Millennials remain a hot and trendy demographic group for corporations. But this group should not be judged as one large pack. It's important to regularly take the pulse of your own workforce and recognize that different stages of life bring different concerns for employees."

How to Give It to Them

It's interesting to note that STEM workers are already receiving many of the general changes in employment that they desire — but the arms race just keeps going. According to ADP RI, STEM workers rate their employers higher than non-STEM employees across flexibility-related metrics like "Innovation" (54 percent to 43 percent, respectively), "Talent Management" (46 percent to 38 percent) and "Leadership" (57 percent to 50 percent), and yet they still exhibit higher mobility. So, the key may not be necessarily to give them what they want, but to make them feel as though they're being given what they want.

Try to find ways of providing equivalent value in lower-impact ways. For instance, offering to let an employee leave a few hours earlier on Friday if they get their work finished, as opposed to a direct financial incentive. Though the actual cost to the organization may be similar, the employee may evaluate it very differently. And management should also work with HR to make sure that large, important changes seem large and important; rather than making five changes simultaneously, space them out over a year or so, so you can chain together multiple positive changes in employee mind-share.

According to ADP RI, STEM employees "are more likely to agree with sentiments about job hopping, including that one should always be looking, that you need to leave to advance/make more money and being aware of opportunities." Managing that sort of mentality is no easy feat — but take comfort from the fact that every one of your competitors has to deal with exactly the same problems, too.