By Justine K. Brown | Associate Editor

Kansas has developed a program thats helping the state become more flexible in its employment practices and more attractive to difficult-to-retain IT workers. Now other states are beginning to follow its lead.

Attracting top employees to public service has always been a challenge. But when it comes to attracting top IT employees -- those folks who are so sought-after in todays high-tech economy they can practically write their own ticket -- its much more difficult.

But thats beginning to change now, thanks in part to efforts Kansas has made in designing a creative program for improving IT workforce recruitment and retention. Not only has Kansas significantly cut costs associated with hiring and replacing IT workers in that state, it has also passed its knowledge on to several other states, proving to them

there are ways of attracting and retaining top IT employees to public service despite the obstacles.

Kansas Leads the Way

Kansas IT Retention Program was developed by the Department of Personnel Services. The goal is to recruit, retain or develop skilled IT employees, eliminate high recruitment costs, encourage employees to obtain needed IT skills and create incentives for key employees to stay with the state and complete critical projects.

"Faced with Y2K, and watching individuals we trained leaving to work in the private sector, we were under extreme pressure to stabilize our workforce," said Bobbi Mariani, assistant director of the Kansas Department of Administration.

In March 1997, under the direction of the secretary of administration, a team of representatives from Kansas IT Advisory Board, state agencies and the Division of Personnel Services assembled to study recruitment and retention issues associated with IT jobs in mission-critical areas or areas requiring market-sensitive skills.

"Instead of Personnel Services and Human Resources handling the situation exclusively, we put together a task force committee of both human resources people and information technology people from various state agencies to sit down and figure out what the problem was," explained Mariani. "Then as a group we began examining what sorts of

things would solve our problems from both an IT perspective and an HR perspective."

As a result of this teamwork, Kansas developed the IT Premium Pay Plan. The plan is intended to reduce turnover of IT employees who leave for the private sector and also to reduce turnover that occurs when IT employees transfer from one state agency to another. The plan includes signing bonuses of up to $3,000 for prospective employees who possess certain critical and rare IT skills; a $500 recruitment bonus for state employees who successfully recruit IT employees from outside state government for specific jobs; a mission-critical skills bonus; and a mission-critical project bonus. In order to promote retention, employees cannot receive or retain any of these bonuses if they leave state service or accept a position with another state agency prior to fulfilling a specified time agreement.

In addition to salary and bonus issues, the state addressed its recruiting and hiring practices, contracting with employees, and its ability to provide employees with needed equipment such as cell phones and laptops.

Though the IT Retention Program required significant upfront investment, it also lowered the states turnover rate, resulting in long-term recruitment and training savings. In 1997, IT turnover in Kansas was at 15 percent. By 1998, the rate fell to 6.9 percent. By 1999, Kansas reported IT turnover was at its lowest ever at 4.5 percent.

"I highly recommend setting human resources people and IT people together in a room and having them address IT retention problems together, because they do have different perspectives on what will work," said Mariani. "The solutions we came up with saved us money by reducing turnover, and gave us a more stable workforce, which