A little more than six years ago, as the economy careened toward the cliff we now call “The Great Recession,” a national study revealed that a large number of senior government IT executives were eligible for retirement, while recruiting new employees was increasingly difficult. “The upcoming drop-off in qualified IT employees to replace outgoing senior management and technical expertise appears to be certain and imminent,” the study concluded.

But the recession put the problem on hold. Baby boomers saw the value of their investments and home equities plummet and delayed retirement. Local governments slashed budgets and cut workforce headcount, or instituted furlough days. A few of them even went bankrupt under reduced revenue and unsustainable defined-benefit pension plans. This pulled the rug out from under government employment’s main appeal in the past — stability and good benefits.

Now, as the economy bounces back, cities and counties again face a tough workforce situation with some notable differences. When local governments shut the doors on hiring for six years, potential employees — who ordinarily would have been hired and spent years learning the ropes and honing their skills — went somewhere else, while baby boomers who would have retired a few at a time are now ready to depart en masse.

Local governments won’t likely replace those employees on a one-to-one basis, and when they do hire, they’ll probably be seeking workers with different skills than their predecessors.

To survive six years of recession, cities and counties outsourced IT systems, hired consultants instead of full-time staff members, and they embraced cloud computing, shared services, virtualization and software as a service. Those hard-won efficiencies will continue, say most CIOs we interviewed.

There are other forces at work too, which may prevent local governments from returning to business as usual. For instance, a change by the Governmental Accounting Standards Board in how public agencies report pension liabilities will force new transparency.

“The unstated and often unfunded pension liabilities of state and local governments will be a drag on government hiring and growth,” said Cate Long, writing last year in Reuters’ MuniLand blog. “Governments will need to embrace other strategies to provide services more efficiently.”

How many IT employees will local governments need in the post-recession world? What skills must these workers bring to the job, and where will they be found? Those are the challenges confronting local government CIOs across the U.S. Here’s how some are approaching the issue.

Cases in Point

Corpus Christi, Texas, CIO Michael Armstrong has a long list of accomplishments, but he’s daunted by the current IT workforce situation. Armstrong oversees 63 technical and 25 call center employees who serve 3,000 city workers. He can’t find employees with specialized IT skills, like database administrators, data architects and network designers.

Last April at a meeting of local government CIOs in Nashville, Tenn., Armstrong said he needed two Oracle database administrators and joked that he was willing to let them live at his house if they’d come to work for him. Six months later, he still hadn’t recruited even one. Ultimately Armstrong contracted out the Oracle DBA work. And he’s shifting to hosted applications, including a cloud-based ERP deployment that’s under way now. Armstrong said Corpus Christi hasn’t deployed an in-house application for three years.

Strategies for Building Your IT Workforce

  • Encourage retirees to phase out gradually. When special skills are needed, and procedure allows it, bring them back on a part-time or temporary basis.
  • Look at job classifications. See if requirements for entry-level positions are set too high, and design some jobs so interns can get a foot in the door.
  • Reduce obstacles to hiring. If you have a six-month hiring process, be prepared to lose potential hires to other opportunities.
  • Promote your strengths: Highlight the chance to make a difference and to work on large projects that are of value to the community.
  • Get current staff members involved in recruiting. “Every member of our team has an expectation that they are to support our ongoing recruitment efforts,” said Michael Katz, human resources director for the Colorado Governor’s Office of Information Technology. Deborah Layton-Root, Colorado statewide chief HR officer, said some agencies are allowed to do their own recruitment incentives and can reward an employee who refers someone who stays for six to 12 months.
  • Work with community colleges and other resources to recruit college graduates and those retraining in IT. For example, the state of Colorado, the city of Denver, the Denver airport and a number of counties have teamed up to pilot a shared IT candidate pipeline.
  • Participate in a community college advisory committee related to IT training and internships; share what you need and how the workforce is changing.
  • For career days, organize interviews and be prepared to make an offer to good candidates. Try to attract candidates early in their training and get them connected with government through an internship.
  • Hold hackathons to get young people involved in developing useful apps for the community and working with public agencies.
  • Post video presentations of job openings on YouTube, featuring successful people at that position demonstrating what’s required, what the workday is like, etc.
  • If you work in a technology hot spot with heavy job competition, look beyond your community for talent.
  • Outsource, go to cloud computing and hire contract labor to fill gaps. Some jurisdictions, like San Diego County, Calif., have successfully outsourced nearly all their IT for years.
  • Create regional teams to handle common systems. Austin and other governments in the region work together on cybersecurity, vendor management and public safety dispatch.
Those efforts are likely to expand as the city confronts what could be a huge wave of retirements. Half of Armstrong’s staff is eligible for retirement, and when they go, they take with them a wealth of experience and skills. “I can deal with a few retirements a year,” he said, “but if next year I lose 25 people, I’m in serious trouble.”

Armstrong worries that the Affordable Care Act could accelerate retirements beginning next year. “What keeps a lot of people here,” he said, “is the 10- to 15-year gap between having enough years in to retire but not being old enough to qualify for Medicare. If they were to retire, insurance becomes essentially unaffordable.” Affordable health coverage under the new law could be a factor in pushing retirement-age staff out the door.

When those employees leave, wholesale hiring of replacements probably won’t happen. The city can’t offer salaries that compete with private-sector pay in tech hot spots like Dallas and Austin. And local universities aren’t cranking out the types of graduates Armstrong seeks.

The city works with the Corpus Christi branch of Texas A&M’s Computer Science Department to find new staff, but the university awarded just nine computer science degrees last year, Armstrong said. Even those graduates weren’t necessarily a good fit. “We don’t need computer scientists who design computers or write operating systems,” he said. “I need people who have more of a business focus.”

Although the university is beginning to get the picture, and the city is having some luck working with two-year colleges, Armstrong said the pool of qualified workers is shrinking. “We’re not seeing as many people come out of college with useful degrees.”

These trends will continue to push Corpus Christi toward IT services, with city staff focused on managing contracts and performing integration.

“Given the financial straits of government,” Armstrong said, “I think it is going to be very difficult for government, especially cities of our size, to maintain a really qualified workforce with the advanced skills we need.”

Up the road in booming Austin, Texas, the economy is growing rapidly. Both Google and AT&T plan to roll out gigabit Internet service there, making the area a hotbed for tech startups. Growing competition for IT talent has taken a toll on the city’s ability to attract staff.

“It takes us about 240 days to fill a vacant position,” said Austin CIO Stephen Elkins. “So even if we get a two-week notice, and even if we have someone there to back that individual up, it still leaves a hole.”

Elkins, who said 30 percent of his staff is eligible to retire within the next five years, approaches the problem from several angles. Where possible, staff are cross-trained on various IT specialties. The city also makes use of skilled retirees by returning them to the workforce temporarily until permanent replacements can be found.

In addition, the city is rewriting job titles to match current practice, and it’s doing a salary survey to assess competitiveness with other employers. Elkins doesn’t expect to match private-sector pay, but he wants to be competitive with other government entities.

Elkins also wants to change city recruiting tactics. Traditional recruiting at job fairs is too slow, he said, adding that by the time the city conducts a series of interviews, candidates may already have multiple private-sector offers. To speed things up, Elkins suggests job-fair contingent offers, under which the city does in-person interviews and makes employment offers on the spot.

Finally, Austin could do a better job of marketing itself, he said. Recruiting out-of-town talent from economically depressed areas could be effective, especially given the city’s thriving live music scene and college-town vibe. And playing up interesting projects — like the current citywide deployment of business intelligence software and a rollout of digital video to police cruisers — could entice potential hires to take a serious look at city employment.

But like Armstrong, Elkins sees continued growth for managed services. Although he intends to retain core operations, other functions could very well end up in the cloud.

Regional cooperation is another way he’s picking up the slack. Austin partners with Corpus Christi, Houston, Fort Worth, Harris County and others on common problems such as cybersecurity, vendor management and public safety dispatch. “We’ve put together a work plan,” said Elkins, “and could put together teams to help us solve some of our common problems. That helps ease up on some of our resources.”

Creating a Talent Pipeline

Although shifting to managed services and boosting regional collaboration can help, there’s no avoiding the fact that local governments will need to replace at least some of their retirees. Building a pipeline that taps into universities or community colleges is crucial for filling the bench with new talent.

What’s Next?

Digital Communities and e.Republic’s Center for Digital Government meet with local government officials around the country. These conversations have led to a number of predictions about the future of government employment and the nature of the work itself:

  • The nature of the workforce is going to change, as well as the nature of the work. There is a great desire for lighter, more flexible and more mobile-based infrastructure and applications. This is going to change what is being done, how it is being done and by whom.
  • Professional networks (outside of the immediate enterprise) will continue to encourage and support broad-based collaboration. We are going to see more temporary and special-purpose employees engaged for specific and limited times as need dictates, rather than a return to wholesale hiring of full-time workers. There will be increased involvement of a wide variety of supporters, enablers and advocates, including, but not limited to, interested citizens engaged in tasks like website design.
  • There will be a move toward a maturing of the hackathon engagement with private-sector employees bringing innovation and expertise to government for six months or so and then returning to their jobs. This seems like a natural extension of the current state of the tech economy where free agents work as independent players on a project-by-project basis. Government might create an “HR technologist mart” where consultants bid on participation in specific projects for a predetermined period. Further expansion of intern programs may also be a viable strategy.
  • More people will work for government for a relatively short period of time. Fewer will work for a lifetime appointment with extraordinary retirement and benefits — those will no longer exist. Government as “a great place to start” is finding more widespread agreement.
  • Workers will need to function in a multidisciplinary fashion with fewer specialists and more generalists. Employees will need a mix of technical and managerial skills to a greater degree than ever before. We will begin to see the creation of “technology contract administrators” focused on managing IT contracts. Their skill sets will differ from traditional procurement office contract managers who handle commodities or construction.
  • To support these new requirements, traditional personnel and HR systems will be reconfigured, as will procurement processes. Both are historically difficult areas to change, but we are seeing the seeds of change in the way unions function and are viewed.
  • Governments will likely need to increase collaboration with university and industry training programs to have access to the trained people they need.
The Washington State Department of Enterprise Services (DES) in Olympia runs an internship program with South Puget Sound Community College (SPSCC) that’s been so successful that the program now supplies interns to other state agencies and is slated for expansion. Digital Communities talked to two people involved in the program to see what principles could transfer to local government.

Perhaps the first ingredient for success is attitude. If your idea of an intern is someone who sits in a cubicle surfing the Web, while staff grumble, “What are we supposed to do with him?” you might be missing an opportunity, said Jim Sampson, a desktop support specialist for the DES who coordinates the department’s internship program.

Sampson’s record is impressive. Of the 13 interns he has mentored personally, 12 continued beyond their internships and six are permanent DES staff members. One of Sampson’s former interns even outranks him — a fact that Sampson points to with pride.

The internship process begins with Sally Murrow, SPSCC’s Cooperative Work Experience/Internship Program coordinator. “I meet with the students, explain the program and help them with their resumes,” she said. “Then I forward the resumes to Jim, and he talks to the hiring managers and they figure out where within [DES] they would fit or where the need is.”

Interns face a full employment interview at the agency, like any other prospective employee. They also sign off on the standard paperwork, including a non-disclosure agreement, emergency contacts and a state background check.

“After we clear all that paperwork, we bring them in and offer them a position, and basically, put them to work. They have the same credentials as any of us,” Sampson said.

Interns are given real work — they handle work orders selected by agency staff based on their skills. But they also get plenty of support. “I’m literally one cubicle away, listening, seeing how they handle the staff,” Sampson said. “They aren’t thrown to the wolves right away. It’s not like a supervisory thing — it’s like a peer is there to help them out.”

Mai Braden’s story epitomizes why cities and counties should consider building internship programs with local colleges. Laid off after a 25-year retail career, she returned to school at SPSCC. Her internship with the state began in 2012 and ended in 2013, when she became a non-permanent part-time employee. She is now working to become a permanent DES employee.

“In school, everything is theory,” she said. “If all you had was school, maybe you would succeed in small business, but at the enterprise level, you can’t beat this experience; they can’t replicate this at the school.”

After her first few days at DES, Braden was hooked. “Other than being overwhelmed by the acronyms, everything else made sense for me — it clicked. Our servers are housed in a virtual farm. Now we’re talking about something huge, and for me it was exciting because I like seeing how everything interconnected.”

SPSCC staff visit DES regularly to observe students in the working environment. And DES staff participate on SPSCC’s advisory panel to tweak the IT program. It’s a good relationship that keeps all parties in alignment.

“[Sampson] is on our advisory committee for the computer science program,” said Murrow. “Many of our employers that offer internships are part of that committee. So they provide input to our faculty as to what they are looking for and technology that may be coming their way. We place a lot of importance on their input.”

Front Row L to R: Internship Coordinator Jim Sampson; former intern and current DES employee Mai Braden; intern Jack Wambeke; former intern and current DES employee Frank Welter; former intern Jeremy Verville; Desktop Support Manager Michael Christopher.

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Wayne Hanson  | 

Wayne E. Hanson served as a writer and editor with e.Republic from 1989 to 2013, having worked for several business units including Government Technology magazine, the Center for Digital Government, Governing, and Digital Communities. Hanson was a juror from 1999 to 2004 with the Stockholm Challenge and Global Junior Challenge competitions in information technology and education.