The (Not So) Secret Way to Retain Software Engineers Amid Talent Scarcity

April 3, 2024 | New Workplace Leadership | 7 min read

One of the leading reasons why tech leaders continue battling with a skills gap on their teams is because they can’t hire the candidates they need, according to Skillsoft’s annual IT Skills and Salary Report. And those who manage to hire can’t always keep their teams intact, which comes with a costly mix of frustration and setbacks.

Talent retention is the greatest challenge tech leaders faced this past year, second only to resource and budget constraints. Hiring is tough, given the intense demand for skills in areas like software development, artificial intelligence, cybersecurity and data science. But what’s more of a concern is retaining employees.

Developing strong teams — and keeping them — is a priority for leaders who are responsible for those engineering solutions. Ensuring they not only stay with the organization but feel satisfied has become increasingly important.

Employees who have both technical and leadership skills hold a tremendous amount of power in the job market today. As leaders, we must recognize this and do what’s in our power to provide fulfilling opportunities to advance their careers and help them grow both personally and professionally.

Otherwise, we risk the setback and cost of employee turnover. Since many leaders are already struggling with strained budgets, the last thing they want is to bear the cost of replacing valued teammates, which Gallup reports can be 1.5 to 2 times the cost of the employee’s salary.

Skillsoft’s survey found that one in five software engineers are extremely likely to look for a new job in the year ahead. Another 30% say they’re at least somewhat likely. On average, U.S.-based software engineers earn $114,801.

You do the math.

But what’s the secret to retaining talented software engineers (or people in any role)?

There isn’t a secret recipe to keeping employees happy, per se, but there are influential actions that leaders can take to build strong teams and help others feel empowered in their roles. And there’s data to prove this.

In this post, we’ll get into the following:

The ResearchSkillsoft's research, among others, shows how engineers feel about their job security, satisfaction, and what they want for their careers.
The ActionsBig and small, a leader's actions can make a world of difference in retaining employees and building strong teams.
The RealityAt Skillsoft, almost a decade ago, we needed to modernize our platform. But before that, we needed to invest in our teams. We'll share the journey.

Your Talent Keeps Leaving. Why?

Employee turnover is a trillion-dollar problem in the United States alone, Gallup reports. A big price tag comes with low job satisfaction and high attrition for businesses. But, as Gallup points out, it’s about more than just the money.

“Losing your best people means losing your reliable winners, your constant innovators and your most effective problem solvers,” write the authors Ben Wigert, director of research and strategy, workplace management, and Shane McFeely, former director of hiring analytics research.

But what’s pushing valued employees out the door?

Skillsoft’s research found the main reasons why software engineers leave is mostly attributed to a lack of professional development and work-life balance. Others were compelled by higher compensation elsewhere. However, some cited leadership and organization performance.

The top 5 reasons why software engineers quit their employees:
A lack of training, growth and development44%
A lack of work-life balance44%
Increase in compensation39%
Department or company management30%
Organization performance29%

Software engineers are problem-solvers. They enjoy developing innovative solutions that have a meaningful impact. They want opportunities to grow and advance their careers. Mostly, they want to put their skills to work.

But what happens when their skills become stale? What happens when they don’t get to exercise their abilities? What happens when they hit a wall in their careers?

No surprises, they leave.

Here’s where leaders can step in to make a difference.

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Inspiration 101: What Do Software Engineers Want at Work?

The Skillsoft survey shows that software engineers largely feel secure in their roles and are at least somewhat satisfied.

But as mentioned, about half are at least somewhat likely to look for a new job. What’s missing at work?

It often comes back to growth. They want opportunities to invest in their skills through training, learning from their peers, and practical code commits that contribute to the organization’s mission.

Virtually all software engineers see professional development as important in their journey forward.

But what does professional development mean in the software world?

This could mean supporting internal career mobility. At Skillsoft, the software engineering team comprises dozens of squads worldwide — all work toward different business objectives and goals.

Some team members have moved to different squads or switched roles within squads to explore interests. This also helps diversify their experience, broaden their perspective, and build new skills. As a result, our team has upskilled employees into full stack and site reliability engineers by allowing this type of internal mobility.

Professional development could also mean devoted time and opportunities to learn.

When it comes to learning, software engineers value the quality of content and opportunities for hands-on practice above all else. Everyone learns differently, though. As a leader, it’s important to understand what motivates our teams to reinvest in themselves. As Skillsoft’s findings show, when people learn and invest time back into their skills, it boosts morale, engages employees, and leads to improved outcomes. In other words, it’s mutually beneficial.

3 Steps to Build Stronger Engineering Teams

Leaders must exemplify the ideals and values we want for our employees: respect and integrity, open communication, emotional intelligence, continuous learning, skills application and so on. We must lead by example and remove as many barriers as we can to help propel their careers forward.

Encourage Engineers to Learn and Apply Their Skills

Workload is the main reason preventing engineers from learning new skills. To solve this challenge, it requires both clear communication and a delicate balance. Given the nature of software engineering and the rapid evolution of the technology landscape, continuous learning is critical for a successful career in this field.

Leaders must work with their teams to support individual career aspirations, encouraging employees to explore their interests by working with others outside of their team, contributing to new projects, or carving out time for training. Doing so can open new doors for employees who want to advance their careers while also helping bridge skill gaps.

Provide Coaching and Mentorship Opportunities

Historically, the engineering teams at Skillsoft reflected a traditional organizational structure with managers engaged in managerial activities and the team executing. We have transformed this into a player-coach model, with strong managers who actively write code or provide feedback on code, architect solutions, or build products.

Now, those who lead teams also actively write code, contribute to the architecture or build of products — all the while, they interface with customers, coach their teammates, and onboard new employees, helping them learn best practices.

Now, collaboration happens organically and continuously. The bonds among employees are stronger, and those who’ve gained valued career experience seamlessly pass it on to others. Truly, it’s a culture of learning and teaching.

Remain Open to Feedback and Ideas

Everyone on the team should feel comfortable giving feedback and ideas to improve to their manager. Collectively, we should always look for ways to do something faster or better. For leaders, skills like emotional intelligence and interpersonal communication become especially important in establishing trust and fostering a culture of open communication.

But it also helps to accommodate different communication styles to make time and space for employees to share their thoughts and feelings about work.

Every quarter at Skillsoft, we ask for feedback and make time for ideas. One way is by surveying our team. We ask about their job satisfaction, the reasons for their scores, and more. These surveys provide candid responses that help us understand areas to improve and reinforce what we’re getting right.

Developing a Culture of Constant Learning Will Pay Off

At Skillsoft, our journey to modernize the Percipio platform started with our team. We needed to empower our employees in their roles. We wanted them to feel invested in the company and their work.

Gallup and Workhuman released a report that shows how an employee feels and is recognized at work can impact productivity, safety, absenteeism, and attrition. While it may seem simple, employee recognition can tremendously impact how people feel about their jobs.

By being intentional in your actions as a leader — from recognizing a job well done to supporting career transformation — you’ll find that employees in any role will feel more fulfilled at work and want to stick around.

That’s been true for our team. At Skillsoft, by making concerted efforts to invest in our teams, invest in skills, and certification training, we’ve seen employee retention climb by 75%. Meanwhile, we’ve realized the cost-savings and monetary benefits of a productive, engaged global workforce. And we've covered this in more detail here, hoping it'll help others.

Cloud Transformation: How Skillsoft Utilized its Learning Pathways to Upgrade its Capabilities