How To Attract and Retain Qualified IT Staff

If Y2K conversion weren't bad enough, along comes a booming economy that is creating a shortage of IT professionals, pitting government against the private sector for technical resources. Can government compete?

by / April 30, 1998
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.


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.


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.


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 conducted elsewhere. Salaries at 15-percent below the prevailing wage, she said, are at risk. Other factors, however, are also shaping the IT labor market:

*An exploding demand for IT;

*A strong U.S. economy;

*The fast pace of business and
IT change;

*Older workers remain, while younger ones follow the money;

*Shortened planning horizons;

*Y2K conversion demands;

*A broken employer/employee
contract caused by downsizing and outsourcing; and

*A decline in computer-science

But there is a bright side. Government employment offers some unique opportunities and benefits. They include:

*Esprit de corps;

*Autonomy, trust and respect;

*Career-enhancing experience and contacts;

*Location and roots;

*Learning, training and breadth of experience;

* Large-scale projects and challenges;

*Shared purpose for the greater good; and

*Excellent benefits.


Obviously, part of the solution to these new demands is to retain, train and maintain existing IT staff members. A corporation that loses 5 percent of its customers, said Tunick, would probably redesign its business. However, the private and public sectors have suffered much more severe losses of valuable employee skills and have not reacted effectively. Meanwhile, said Tunick, the turnover rate is climbing above 15 percent -- with much higher turnover for short-term employees and those who possess skills in high demand. Turnover is a constant problem, Tunick said, and 10 percent to 25 percent of positions regularly remain unfilled.

New hires often demand salary premiums of 15 percent to 35 percent in a market driven by skills, not longevity, region or industry. Thus, to replace an existing employee will not only mean the usual amount of training and ramp-up, but the new hire will demand 15 percent to 35 percent higher pay than the person they are replacing.

Other factors can influence turnover. For example, one government executive said turnover was much higher in his agency after it had been announced that the agency might be outsourcing, and employees -- worried about their careers and job security -- abandoned ship.

But the entire picture is not
necessarily gloomy, said Tunick. Government has much to offer the employee, including working with a unified vision and with a sense of the common good. And a little consideration goes a long way. For example, if someone works all weekend to finish an urgent project, does the agency reward that person with a restaurant dinner for the family? Is there onsite daycare? How about membership in a fitness club? These things are benefits that can help retain skilled employees. As Tunick said, "Why do employees leave? Because they can." And the bottom line? Salary disparity can make a difference, but many times high turnover is a symptom of organizational problems.


Austin, Texas, has virtually no unemployment and is expecting none for the next decade, which makes it a good workforce laboratory. State and local government agencies compete for staff with a number of technology firms, such as Dell Computer. In spite of this, the city of Austin has had virtually no IT staff turnover. As city CIO Linda Beth Brady said, that's a good thing, since attracting new staff is difficult.

Brady has gone to some lengths to maintain her 133-person staff. She says that only a handful of employees have left, either because they were promoted and she was unable to match the offer, or because they lacked the skills needed for the job. When asked to divulge her secret, she laughed and said, "flexibility."

Flexibility begins with asking employees what they want and listening to them. For example, most employees wanted a relaxed dress code, so Brady agreed. Now, she said, even though a few employees decry the "unprofessional look" of the department, most staff are happy. "If you're clean and covered," said Brady, "that's OK."

In addition, her staff periodically nominates one of its number for special recognition, and team awards are also given. Certificates and coffee mugs are the extent of it. It's not expensive, said Brady. What matters is that individuals are recognized for their contributions.

Telecommuting and flexible work hours can be negotiated between
the employee and supervisor. Telecommuting employees can take old equipment home to use, and -- depending on the job -- the city may even install a high-speed connection to the home.

When one employee's husband took a job in California, she said her husband wasn't sure it would work out, so Brady offered to let the woman telecommute 10 hours a week. Six months later, the family returned to Austin, and the woman was back full-time. "It sounds kind of loosey-goosey," said Brady, "but we kept her on the payroll and it worked out."

But salary still looms as an issue, and so the city brought in the Mercer Company to do an independent salary assessment. Mercer officials suggested that salaries should be raised to a more competitive level. Since then, employees have had two increases. Brady said that, while city salaries are higher than comparable state or county scale, they are still lower than the private sector. "I ask them 'what is it that makes you decide to start looking [for a new job]?'" said Brady. "If they're paid so little, they feel insulted; that's it. If they're in range, it's OK."

Since the staff is happy with salaries and the work environment, Brady encourages them to recruit their friends, and this has helped pull in new hires. Five former staff members, hearing about the changes in the department, have returned.

Brady still has 15 unfilled positions for very specialized skills, but the gap is gradually closing. Recently, however, Brady sat on a workforce panel with other government officials and said her brand of flexibility was not broadly embraced. For example, other panel members said they would never counter-offer if someone was leaving, she said. "They feel that the employee should like it or lump it."


Aside from retaining existing staff, what can be done to assist recruitment? Forming partnerships with academic institutions -- as California's Flynn did for his project management situation -- is suggested. Recently, a number of academic institutions met in Berkeley, Calif., to ask for help in redirecting their curricula to meet the need for IT skills. Cisco Systems tried training high-school teachers in network management, so they could teach students. When the teachers left for higher salaries in networking, Cisco decided to train the kids instead and set up more than 100 academies in high schools and universities around the country.

Warner Brothers, when confronted with a shortage of 3D animation artists, also went to schools with a unique videoconferenced animation training program. Gartner Group's Tunick said that Australia has countered shortages of IT professionals by making government IT an aggressive, leading-edge enterprise that attracts talented young people.

Along with the move to increase immigration of skilled IT professionals to this country, centers are being established in Malaysia and India where programmers can work online programming U.S. systems.


The International Personnel Management Association (IPMA) released its Personnel Program Inventory Part II, which looked at benefits, recruitment and selection issues in local government.

The survey -- of IPMA members in 313 cities and 55 counties -- revealed that agencies are offering new types of benefits to employees. Twenty-five percent offer financial planning sessions for employees, 26.5 percent offer stop-smoking programs, and 10.5 percent offer computer-purchasing assistance for personal use by employees.

Since 1996, said IPMA, the number of agencies using online recruitment approaches and posting job listings on the Internet has jumped from only a handful to 31 percent. Sixteen percent of respondents accept resumes online or by e-mail.

One copy of the complete report is available free for IPMA member agencies. Individual copies for members are $20, and the nonmember price is $40. For more information, contact the Center for Personnel Research 220-4762.

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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.