Beating the Workforce Blues

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.

by / November 6, 2000 0
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 was critical."

Wisconsin Follows Suit

Since Kansas implemented its program, several other states have adopted all or parts of it. One of those states is Wisconsin.

Following Kansas lead, Wisconsin formed an Information Technology Advisory Board made up of state agencies, IT directors and human resource specialists. "Before we created the board, we really didnt have a coordinated, enterprise-wide way to recruit and retain IT professionals," said Bob Lavigna, administrator of Merit Recruitment and Selection for the state. "We were facing the same challenges many public organizations were facing: We were having trouble attracting qualified IT folks and retaining them. It was becoming increasingly clear that we had to do something because we wanted to make sure we had
talented people in these positions. We knew we needed to adopt an enterprise-wide approach."

One of the first things the IT Advisory Board did was hire an IT recruiter, Jennifer Gebert. Gebert and others immediately went to work implementing some of the boards recommendations, such as developing an online application, called E-List, that allows IT professionals to apply for state IT jobs 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Job seekers fill out a skills inventory and are instantly matched with state agencies seeking an employee with the same skill set. E-List has allowed Wisconsin to identify job seekers with IT skills much more quickly. Since its implementation in late 1998, the state has made more than 150 hires -- many in as few as 10 days.

The state has also entered into a partnership with private-sector recruiter allows the state to post all of its IT job openings on the companys recruitment Web site. Applicants are then automatically e-mailed information on state IT jobs if the job matches their profile. In addition, the state has dabbled in radio recruitment and has begun conducting on-site interviews at state career fairs. Last March, the state hired 11 IT professionals at the senior level and above within two to three weeks following a career fair. "Because these IT professionals are in such demand, weve empowered IT managers to do on-site interviews and make tentative offers on the spot. If a potential employees references check out, we hire them as soon as possible," said Gebert. "Weve also expanded our recruiting out of state. Last year we participated in a recruiting event in New York and made two IT hires. Thats another example of how were going head-to-head with private-sector recruiters."

The IT Advisory Board has empowered agencies to award bonuses to employees based on new skills attained on the job. "Thats a nice feature and its something we didnt have in the past," said Gebert. "Its giving us a tool to use for retention purposes."

The state is also allowing applicants to maintain flexible work schedules for the first time, an option thats reportedly requested more and more often, and which may be worth more than money to employees with heavy family demands.

So far, Wisconsins efforts appear to be paying off. For the first time ever, several state agencies have filled all of their IT positions.

"One of the most difficult things to overcome has been the perception of government employment," said Lavigna. "But once potential employees learn that they are working to develop systems that help people or track criminals or aid education, etc., they get intrigued and they realize they are working on a team that touches the lives of everyone
in the state. Thats been a good selling point."

Competitive in Colorado

Colorado has also learned from the example Kansas has set. In late 1997, faced with very high IT turnover, the state changed its pay policies significantly. "We werent very competitive when it came to salaries," said Jeff Schutt, director of Human Resources. "Fortunately, we had a Legislature that was very responsive to our problems and we
were able to make some changes quickly."

Since that time, Schutts office has authorized signing bonuses, differential pay and matching pay when an employee has a verified offer from someone else. It has also improved recruiting practices, becoming more active in working with universities to attract college graduates
and doing more hiring based on competency and potential rather than current qualifications and experience.

As a result, the attrition rate in the state dropped from 11.4 percent in 1996 to around 9.8 percent in 1998.

Though Colorado has made significant progress already, the state plans to keep re-evaluating and improving its recruitment and retention efforts. "Were constantly looking at the market," said Schutt. "Every year we do a complete market survey. That tells us a lot about whats going on in the private sector and allows us to make changes to improve our marketability."

Colorado is also busy examining the concept of total compensation, or the idea of offering things other than salary to meet an employees needs and wants. "Were beginning to realize we have to address a potential employees total work environment and what they need," said
Schutt. "A lot of times we need to give them more time off, not necessarily more salary. Other times its the opposite. Sometimes flexible work schedules and telecommuting are most important. Overall, we need to build compensation packages that are much more flexible to an individuals needs."