Would you change jobs if offered a 15-percent raise? How about 20 percent? That question -- posed to a group of state and local government IT executives by Gartner Group's Diane Tunick -- may have important implications in state and local government's ability to attract and hold skilled IT staff. But, as Tunick was quick to point out, it's not just money. Agency executives -- who feel they can't compete with the private sector -- may simply be unwilling to look at the organization itself, Tunick said.

A GOOD PROBLEM TO HAVE?

Nationally, the economy is booming, the stock market is setting new records, unemployment is at its lowest point in years and welfare rolls are dropping. So what's the problem? Well, according to a U.S. Department of Commerce study released last year, there are not enough job applicants trained in information technology disciplines. The study states that the 1 million-plus IT workers needed in the next decade may not materialize because American schools and universities are not turning out computer and information science graduates fast enough.

"The rapid pace of innovation and growth of technology," said U.S. Sen. Spencer Abraham, R-Mich., "combined with record low unemployment in many areas, has created an untenable situation." Abraham, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee's immigration subcommittee, recently introduced The American Competitiveness Act, which seeks to increase the number of temporary visas for skilled immigrants and would authorize $50 million for scholarships in math, engineering and computer science.

Critics charged that relaxing immigration quotas may be a ploy to drive down wages or to recruit already-trained technical staff instead of confronting the issues of training and re-training existing staff and new hires. Then in March, the General Accounting Office (GAO) weighed in on the issue, saying, in part, the Commerce Department's study was flawed, since it counted only computer science graduates as an indicator of the numbers of technically skilled job applicants. Many other programs in engineering, mathematics, economics and education may also teach the requisite job skills, said GAO.

STATE AND LOCAL CRUNCH

While federal agencies dispute the matter, state and local government IT agencies feel the pinch and scramble to address real staffing scarcities. One Texas state agency executive, in discussing Y2K conversion, said that she was 18-percent understaffed and unable to recruit applicants in the booming Austin-area economy. Plus, she said, scarcity has hiked pay, so it now costs the agency 30-percent more for the same amount of programming. And the Y2K conversion? "We're just hanging on," she said.

California CIO John Thomas Flynn is particularly concerned about the shortage of qualified project managers. "The movie Titanic," he said, "is the most expensive movie in history. It cost $200 million to produce, $100 million for the technology and special effects. How many project managers have successfully handled a $100 million IT project? And yet I have a dozen projects that big." Sure enough, look at Flynn's risk-analysis of current state projects, and under the "Project Management Risk" category is a nearly solid line of high-risk red. To keep the state's titanic IT projects afloat, Flynn teamed up with the University of California, Davis, to train project managers.

There are many more examples of strategies governments are using to counter the staffing crunch. However, according to Tunick, agencies must first do some soul-searching.

SALARIES ONLY PART OF THE PROBLEM

Tunick -- in a packed session on workforce at the Southwest Region Government Technology Conference in February -- asked attendees to raise hands when they heard a salary increase that would cause them to change jobs. "Five percent?" she asked. No hands. "Ten percent?" No hands. "Fifteen percent?" No hands. Finally, at 20 percent, the hands went up -- lots of hands.

Tunick said that was in line with similar surveys she has

Wayne Hanson  |  Editor