Filling the Workforce Gap

Despite the economic slowdown, state and local governments are still struggling to find qualified IT workers.

by / April 16, 2002
When the city of El Paso's legacy financial system needed to be replaced, officials had a choice: Go through the traditional implementation process and purchase a system El Paso IT workers would operate and maintain, or try something completely different and outsource the entire operation to an application service provider.

According to William Chapman, the city's chief financial officer, the decision was a no-brainer. Unable to attract and retain information technology workers capable of running the newest generation of financial and human resource software, the city turned the project over to PeopleSoft, which provides all the operational support -- and infrastructure -- necessary for the Web-based application.

Not long ago, such a move would have been virtually unheard of in government. But with more and more states and localities unable to recruit and retain workers for the high-tech fields of Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP), data modeling, project management, e-government and other specialized fields, outsourcing has become an increasingly attractive option. But with few governments willing to expand outsourcing beyond certain types of technical applications, the chase for skilled IT workers goes on.

The Struggle
Most state and local governments continue to struggle with a shortage of qualified IT workers, according to Gartner Inc. In a study conducted last summer, the research firm said 87 percent of state governments and 80 percent of local governments don't have the IT personnel they require.

Part of the problem is the gap in compensation between the public and private sector for IT managers and staff. For example, the median salary for IT managers in government is $70,000 -- well below the median of $82,000 for managers in the private sector.

The problem is expected to worsen as huge numbers of baby boomers reach retirement age in the next few years. The federal government, which currently has 1.8 million workers, will have half that number -- 900,000 --eligible for retirement within five years, according to USA Today. In Contra Costa County, Calif., more than 53 percent of the county's IT workers are eligible for retirement, according to government officials.

But not all is so bleak. The softening economy has led many IT workers to take a second look at a career in the public sector. "The market has improved, though it depends on which part of the country you are talking about," said Jim Fox, chairman of Fox, Lawson & Associates, a compensation consulting firm that specializes in the government sector. "The [recruitment] situation is certainly better now than it was a year-and-a-half ago."

Dianah Neff, chief information officer for Philadelphia, confirmed the upswing. "We have seen more applications coming in for open positions. As a result, we are seeing candidates without using placement companies," she said. "But we're still having problems finding qualified workers for certain technical fields, such as database administration, architecture and modeling. These premium positions are harder to fill."

Some CIOs wonder just how long new applicants will stick around once the economy gets back on its feet and the private sector starts recruiting again in larger numbers. To prepare for that eventuality and to strengthen the overall IT recruitment process, some state and local governments are trying to get hide-bound civil service departments to break with the past and start building some flexibility into hiring practices, pay schedules and job descriptions.

Other governments, especially at the local level, are building relationships with local colleges, hoping to tap into a new generation of skilled graduates. Philadelphia-area universities now teach electronic commerce skills to students, a knowledge area increasing in demand in the public sector. Other jurisdictions have turned to community colleges to fill less specialized positions. Some have tapped the welfare-to-work market as a recruitment resource.

According to Fox, the most innovative governments have learned how to become flexible when it comes to pay, both for recruitment purposes, but also to retain workers who may be on the verge of leaving. "Flexibility allows the government IT agencies to act fast in order to retain highly skilled workers," he said.

Unfortunately, today's fast-moving economy has exposed government's shortcoming when it comes to recruiting and retaining workers with lower pay, slower response time, inflexibility, lack of performance rewards and a sometimes stifling work environment. Personnel experts argue that state and local government needs to rethink its approach to hiring and retaining IT workers.

First, state and local governments should not become fixated on pay as the prime issue that keeps qualified IT workers from the public sector. Allen DeMers, an analyst for the city of San Jose, Calif., pointed out that many IT professionals don't rank pay as the most important factor in their decision to take a job. Writing in the spring issue of Public Personnel Management, DeMers emphasized that CIO's have a number of options "for recruitment and retention that do not revolve solely on compensation."

Already mentioned is the need to design flexibility into hiring practices. Other strategies include:

  • Using technologically advanced hiring techniques such as Web-based applications and database skill tracking

  • Developing an organization-wide commitment to hiring qualified IT staff

  • Increasing employee recognition through the use of bonuses and innovative awards

  • Establishing clear and well-funded professional development training programs

  • Creating attractive, interesting and innovative work environments
    Properly publicizing the benefits that come from working in the public sector.

  • Donald Evans, chief information officer for Public Technology Inc., the national technology organization for local governments, also believes local governments can offer IT workers a valuable career, without being trapped by the compensation issue. "The public sector has the ability to offer IT workers and managers a great deal of responsibility at an accelerated pace, something that doesn't always happen in the private sector," he said.

    Outsourcing For Some
    In some situations, when even the best strategies fail to attract qualified workers, state and local governments have the option of outsourcing. "It's happening in specific areas, such as ERP," said Fox. Often, state and local governments will include training as part of the contract, so that existing workers can pick up the skills from the outsourcer." Large system vendors, such as IBM, EDS and Unisys, have seen the service side of their operations take off recently, according to press reports.

    El Paso's outsourcing project is unique in that it put the entire application, including security, connectivity, integration and support, in the hands of PeopleSoft's hosting unit, known as PeopleSoft eCenter. The city is paying approximately $3 million for the service, which includes training for staff and maintenance of the suite of applications for payroll, general ledger, purchasing, payables, receivables, billing and asset management.

    But few state or local governments outsource simply because they have a problem attracting qualified IT workers. Often, the problem is a lack of funding that has created a shortage of resources in infrastructure as well as manpower and expertise.

    In Philadelphia, Neff said the city was relying more on outsourcing for very discrete projects that involved complex integration processes and highly technical applications, for which the city simply does not have the expertise. But she views outsourcing as an opportunity to train her staff about new technologies and techniques, not as way to farm out tasks to outsiders. "We are looking to develop our skills, such as project management," she said. "So we develop projects where the outside company runs the system while training us until we have the skills to take over."
    Tod Newcombe Features Editor