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It's getting even tougher to find and retain top IT staff. That's according to a survey of 300 US CIOs carried out by executive search company Randall James Monroe.

The survey, carried out in July, revealed that 31 percent of executives are looking to hire IT executives in the coming months. "Historically, that's a high figure," said Randall Neal, CEO of the US-based executive search firm that conducts the survey on a regular basis.

But developing and maintaining "A team" of IT managers can be a real challenge in a tight job market, he said. Most top-level IT executives aren't looking for jobs; they're valued by the organisations they work for, and they're paid reasonably well.

Still, there are effective techniques CIOs can use to try to attract and retain top talent in a strong economy, said Neal. It's important for CIOs to show their commitment to their lieutenants by fostering professional growth through increased training, clearly-defined career paths and a demonstrated tendency to promote from within, according to Mary C. Finley, deputy CIO at Partners HealthCare System in Boston.

Such steps "send very clear messages that you're about more than getting the work done - you're about developing your staff," she said.

Finley created a career growth initiative within the IT department for the integrated health system two years ago after discovering in a meeting with her top supervisors that more work needed to be done in that area. As the programme was being assembled, she said, "we discovered we were underspending our career training money. This was very disturbing to find out after you fight for this funding and discover it's being underutilised."

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Since then, Finley has enacted a standard requiring each IT employee to receive a minimum of 40 hours of training each year. The training includes elective coursework but can also include time spent by IT managers sitting in on senior management meetings.

One way to set a baseline for desired skills when evaluating outside IT management candidates is to consider the qualities of those people who have been in the IT organisation for many years and are successful contributors, said Renee Baker Arrington, a vice president at Pearson Partners International, an executive search firm in Dallas.

For instance, Arrington said, do the external candidates and some of the successful internal IT managers share common career backgrounds such as expertise in particular industries or experience working for midsize or large companies? On the flip side, CIOs should also look at "who has been 'voted off the island' recently and why," she said.

As the market for top-flight IT executives continues to shrink, Neal advises CIOs to seek out older IT managers with lots of experience under their belts "who still have a lot of gas left in the tank" - particularly as demographic changes lead more executives to extend their careers.

He said that most IT executives are drawn to new positions through career growth, fresh challenges and turnaround opportunities. Increasingly, Neal finds that all types of executives are seeking opportunities where they can make a difference in the world.

"A faith-based organisation can be attractive to certain individuals," he said.

Before CIOs get involved in the recruitment process, it's important for them to commit to the time and energy needed to make their search successful, said Steve Kendrick, information officer practice consultant at Spencer Stuart, a global executive search firm. For a second visit by an IT management candidate, the CIO should invite a senior business executive to the meeting who might be affected by the hire, Kendrick said.

It's also important to develop "a thoughtful on-boarding process" for new executive hires, he said. "This is being given a lot more consideration by companies these days," according to Kendrick.

Meanwhile, CIOs shouldn't forget about the top talent they want to keep. CIOs "should look at what type of development or visibility opportunities they're providing" to their own workers, Finley said