Attracting talented technology professionals to public service continues to be a challenge for government employers. Young technologists crave money and upward mobility, which the public sector typically struggles to provide. But state and local governments are using some interesting retainment strategies that may eventually turn the tide in government’s IT workforce battle with the private sector.

Harris County, Texas, and the state of Utah have developed new job classifications and evaluation procedures that enable skilled IT technicians to advance their careers and make more money without moving into management roles. The hope is that as IT employees gain experience, they’ll feel enticed to rise up the ranks internally, instead of looking to the private sector for a new — and more lucrative — challenge.

For example, Utah developed a “master engineer” career path, designed for highly technical IT employees who want to remain in the trenches, but still be financially rewarded for the highly skilled work they do. The option has been around for qualified employees for a few years now.

In order to be eligible, employees of the Utah Department of Technology Services (DTS) must reach the job classification of Information Technology III and max out the pay range, according to Utah CIO Mark VanOrden. Not everyone who reaches that level is eligible, however.

While the total number of employees in the DTS is about 750, VanOrden explained that people in finance, purchasing and some other positions don’t have the master engineer path open to them. It’s meant specifically for technical experts in a particular area, such as Java or systems administration.

Officials in Harris County took a similar path, creating “architect level” positions for its Information Technology Center (ITC) personnel. Like Utah’s master engineers, Harris County technical staff can progress in their careers and get paid well, without taking on management responsibilities.

Kevin Russell, deputy executive director of the ITC, said employees previously were called “technology officers,” ranging in level from one to 10. That was nixed in favor of industry-standard job titles. Once established, salary comparisons could be done with similar private-sector positions in the Houston job market to help make the case for competitive compensation at the county.

In addition, the ITC developed a performance matrix that features eight different dimensions, each with five levels. Evaluating each IT employee using the matrix has helped give staff members a clear look at where they are in the organization and what they need to do to rise through the ranks.

Here’s how the matrix works: “Teamwork” is one of the eight dimensions. Let’s say an employee is at level one in that dimension. Russell explained that the individual would be categorized mostly as an individual contributor with not a great deal of expectations. But if you’re on level five, the expectation is that you’re a leader in both the IT organization and in the agencies the ITC supports.

When employees are evaluated, each person’s position is assigned a level for all eight dimensions. So if that position’s demands and progress doesn’t match the person’s professional goals or interests, he or she can decide whether to choose a different career path within the ITC or with another county agency.

“We’ve had developers jump ship and become business analysts and some people went the project management route, understanding where they are and what’s expected of them,” said Bruce High, CIO of Harris County.

The revamped job titles and evaluation procedures gave High, Russell and county commissioners the foundation they needed to objectively look at what they’re paying IT staff and make adjustments. Russell noted that they’ve been able to reward IT staff with incremental pay increases over the last few years using a pay-for-performance model. Combined with the architect level designation, the changes have helped Harris County modernize its technology career opportunities.

“Kevin and I basically grew up in the technical industry, and we saw so many people fail because the only opportunity they’ve had is to go into management in order to get paid what they’re worth,” High said. “So it was a foundation of ours to give those technical people who need to stay technical the opportunity to grow within their field.”

It would be easy to dismiss the recruitment and retainment issue as only a matter of money. VanOrden, Harris and Russell agree that better compensation in the private sector is the root of the problem. But they said several other factors also cause people to leave public-sector positions or discount government jobs entirely when searching for career opportunities.

The trio noted that many employees focus on a healthy work-life balance these days, as opposed to being tied to the office. And while career-minded individuals used to plant roots at an organization for decades, now employees more often look for new challenges every few years. These and other considerations play a huge role in the IT workforce evolution.

VanOrden said Utah’s IT employees are being enticed to leave by the amenities private-sector tech giants provide. Gov. Gary Herbert heavily promotes the state as a ripe area for technology companies to invest in. And while the effort is arguably good for Utah’s economy, it makes keeping good IT employees more difficult for the public sector.

For example, VanOrden and state staff visited Adobe’s new office in Lehi, Utah, for an open house. What struck him on the tour were items such as rock climbing walls, a basketball court, a 24-hour gym and conference rooms equipped with gas fire logs. On top of the higher pay that companies such as Adobe offer, state offices simply can’t compete with those types of perks.

But VanOrden doesn’t plan on using the master engineer job classification as a lure to entice younger people into working for the state. “We don’t intend to use it as a recruiting tool to bring in new people,” he said. “We could, but the main purpose is to take [existing] good technical people and give them a different path from management.”

Harris County faces much competition for IT talent with the city of Houston, particularly when trying to recruit the best and brightest potential workers coming out of college. Russell said that although the county offers a generous retirement package and career stability, it can be a hard sell to a 22-year-old who wants top dollar but also values working on bleeding-edge technology issues in state-of-the-art facilities.

Russell added that IT people tend to be more loyal to their profession than to the organization they work for. As a result, he sees many technology workers moving around, but the reasons often aren’t about compensation.

“It might be for career path opportunities that they weren’t afforded at the organization they were at,” Russell said. “That’s what we’re struggling with right now — if we bring in those younger folks, what do we do to keep them interested? I’m not convinced everyone that we would hire today would stay here for 25 to 30 years and retire.”

Utah and Harris County aren’t planning more job classification changes for IT workers who’d rather stay in the trenches. However, VanOrden said the Utah Department of Human Resource Management (DHRM) may eventually conduct a market comparability study of state employees and the private sector.

If that is completed and there are salary disparities between the two sectors, then the DHRM would have leverage to push the Legislature and governor to approve a pay adjustment. VanOrden noted that the DHRM last did this successfully 10 years ago, so he expects the gap in wages to be “pretty high.”

Harris County’s ITC has turned its attention to sharing the performance matrix and title classifications with other local government technology shops. Several Texas counties have reached out to Harris County about the ITC’s steps to retain workers, according to High. But implementation results in other places have been mixed.

High noted that some local government IT departments have adopted the ITC’s retention ideas successfully, but others are still challenged and the issue of recruitment and retention remains constant.

“We take it seriously as the CIOs throughout the state on the local level,” High said regarding IT workforce issues. “This seems to be our conversation every time we get together. We by no means feel like we’ve got it all figured out, but we’re living and learning like the rest of the folks.” 

Brian Heaton  |  Senior Writer

Brian Heaton is a senior writer for Government Technology. He primarily covers technology legislation and IT policy issues. Brian started his journalism career in 1998, covering sports and fitness for two trade publications based in Long Island, N.Y. He's also a member of the Professional Bowlers Association, and competes in regional tournaments throughout Northern California and Nevada.