The IT Workforce Continuum

How to get talent in the door, keep them engaged and soften the blow of the retirement wave.

by / July/August 2017

When it comes to workforce management, government technology professionals are getting squeezed on all sides. IT recruiting is famously difficult, with more than 200,000 unfilled jobs just in cybersecurity, according to a Stanford University Peninsula Press study. A survey by Indeed found that 86 percent of employers discover it challenging to hire technical professionals. Tech skills are in high demand, and government’s traditional allure — good benefits, a nice retirement package — don’t always stand up when private industry dangles a fat paycheck and access to cutting-edge technology.

Mid-careerists may be wooed by the private-sector paycheck too, and on the far end of the career trajectory, the so-called silver tsunami looms: Anywhere from 30 to 40 percent of state workers are eligible for retirement, according to the National Association of State Personnel Executives.

“It worries me daily,” said Louisiana CIO Dickie Howze — and so it should. For state and local IT executives, the workforce crunch presents a potential operational nightmare. Jobs sit vacant for months; mid-careerists may have one foot out the door; and the senior people who built the legacy systems are rounding the bend on retirement.

Nonetheless, many top IT leaders find cause for hope. They are developing creative recruitment strategies. They’re winning the loyalty of mid-career professionals and successfully tapping the institutional wisdom of those in the later stages of their careers. Here’s how some of the most successful champions are making IT workforce management happen.

RECRUITMENT

On the front end, cities and states are getting increasingly creative in their efforts to on-board new IT talent.

For some, a new approach to recruiting starts with a deep dive into the positions themselves. “A lot of the job descriptions in the public sector are old. They reference technology that literally doesn’t exist anymore. It’s not like jobs in accounting, where the job is always the same as it was 15 years ago,” said Michael Coakley, CIO of White Plains, N.Y.

“I had to work with the personnel department to update those official job descriptions so they would reflect the skill sets we actually needed,” he said. “Then we also had to make sure the hiring exams have the appropriate questions to reflect those descriptions.”

At the state level, Louisiana’s Howze turns to academia for support. He’s partial to university job fairs, where government IT gets a chance to tell its story to a new cadre of potential recruits.

“The public sector has traditionally not done a good job of defining the benefits that come with working for state government,” he said. Many students don’t even have state work on their radar, “so we look at this as a venue where they can start to learn about us.”

For others, successful hiring requires even bolder steps. In Seattle, the consolidation of 15 technology offices into a single citywide IT department has been a boon to recruitment.

“We have an incredible amount of talent, but there was also an incredible amount of competition. We saw departments competing with each other for talent, which was not helping the city,” said CTO Michael Mattmiller. With a single IT organization, the city no longer trips over itself in the scramble to fill positions. The consolidation also has streamlined the workforce, eliminating the need for some duplicate positions.

One County's Journey

In Oakland County, Mich., Deputy County Executive and CIO Phil Bertolini has his hands full managing workforce issues for a 160-strong IT staff. “It is easy to lose sight of your existing people while you are bringing in new people, or else you lose track of recruiting because you are so focused on retention,” he said.

 

Thirty percent of the workforce will retire over the next three years; vacancies have run as high as 22 percent in the past. Bertolini has taken a four-pronged approach to the challenge.

Go pro: The county engaged a professional recruiting company. “We needed someone who could go national, someone who knew that space and could find the right people,” he said.

Get metrics: A salary study found the county lagged private-sector IT employers by 30 percent, and so the county reworked the pay scale, adding as much as $450,000 annually to the budget. “That helped with recruiting and retention. I could offer more money to bring people in, and for the people who were on the fence, now they saw a chance for upward mobility,” Bertolini said.

Modernize: The county has added flexible work schedules and a work-from-home option, in an effort to stay competitive with private-sector employers. “That was a big change for us. Government is used to having people work in a government office,” he said.

Tear down the walls: Workplace collegiality is key to IT retention, so Bertolini opened up the floor space in the application development area. “We looked at the factors of a modern IT shop,” he said. “I visited Google and Quicken Loans and everybody had these low walls. They could stand while they worked, they could talk to each other.”

The multi-pronged approach is needed in the face of a complex workforce dynamic. “You are trying to figure out multiple generations and at the same time you are trying just to manage the workload in front of you,” he said. “You have to optimize the use of your people, and it’s a complicated effort.”

Virginia Beach, Va., also took a structural approach, working with Gartner to develop a comprehensive Master Technology Plan that has had a big impact on recruiting. “Our findings and recommendations included the creation of the Workforce Team, which includes a workforce coordinator, workforce technician, and two HR/payroll account clerks,” said Susan Salafranca, the city’s IT department workforce manager. The team develops new IT job descriptions, aligning salaries to be competitive in the regional market, and ultimately reducing time to hire.  

Social media helps too. Illinois CIO Hardik Bhatt is constrained by union rules for much of his hiring, but when a non-union position does open up, he turns to his network of some 5,000 LinkedIn followers. “We have made significant good hires through social media,” he said. “My CTO was hired that way; we have hired a bunch of CIOs across different agency clusters that way.”

RETENTION

For IT leaders, getting talent in the door is only half the battle. Mid-career technologists always have options available and many are enticed by the higher salaries and other advantages available in the private sector.

Ed Blayney recognizes the risk. He’s laying plans to launch an internal hackathon as a way to keep professionals engaged. “We want to identify the potential of people who are already in government,” said Blayney, innovation project manager at Louisville, Ky., Metro Government. “Maybe there is someone who enjoys working in government but who is feeling some inertia. If we can find them and get them engaged, they may be less likely to hop.”

Others seek to bolster retention through technological means. In Keene, N.H., for instance, officials use a talent management system from Halogen Software to give mid-career employees visibility into their career trajectories. Talent management systems can help managers and employees track performance appraisals, organize learning and development activities, illuminate succession plans and personalize career paths.

“Employees can enter and log their activities, and supervisors can use it to track activity. It’s a little more robust than just keeping track of dates in an Excel spreadsheet,” said Assistant City Manager Elizabeth Fox. “We create goals and objectives, and this allows you to keep track of what you are doing and what you want to do.”

In the Michigan Department of Technology, Management and Budget, surveys play a key role in ensuring mid-careerists stay on track and satisfied. In a recently conducted employee engagement survey, the fourth since 2011, some 20 percent of employees identified training as a top priority. Among the 1,800-strong IT team this meant not just technical training, although that’s important, but also managerial training to help them further their careers.

To scratch that itch, department leadership makes training an explicit priority. “People map out their goals at the beginning of the year. We map the technical proficiencies of that specific job and we put together a curriculum that will satisfy those requirements,” said James McFarlane, the department’s Agency Services director. This approach yields results: From 2013 to 2015, the number of employees who identify themselves as highly engaged and likely to stay increased by 7 percent.

This kind of effort is key to winning hearts and minds among up-and-coming IT professionals who may be tempted by the siren song of private industry. “If the salaries aren’t as high as in the private sector, then you need to continually find new and innovative ways to keep and attract talent,” McFarlane said. “You want to have an engaged workforce; you want to have people who are excited to come to work. Promoting professional development excites people.”

Many government IT leaders talk about selling the mission: You keep mid-career IT people engaged by reminding them about the tangible good that they do. Illinois CIO Bhatt is big on this. He touts IT wins in monthly meetings with agency CIOs. He hosts town halls and webcasts for the IT crew, and blogs ardently about tech achievements.

In addition to talking up success stories, he also uses these communications to promote all the ways in which state IT efforts stand on the technological cutting edge. “We are talking smart state, we are talking about blockchain, talking about mobility and predictive analytics,” Bhatt said. “This motivates people inside government to start stepping up.”

Still, some caution that selling employees on the latest-and-best technologies can be a double-edged sword.

“That increases employee morale but it also cuts both ways,” Mattmiller said. “People gain incredible new skills and then they take those and go looking for new opportunities. So we want to give people access to this modern technology, and then show them that there is a path to stay and use those new skills in the city.”

Consolidation of the city’s IT structure has helped Mattmiller make that case. With all tech jobs under one roof these days, it’s easier to help mid-careerists see how their skills could be parlayed within the city’s workforce structure. “With a quarter of the workforce eligible to retire, now we have supervisory positions and managerial positions that open up practically weekly. So for people who get the big picture, they see opportunity after opportunity,” he said. “Mid-range employees can step up and take the reins. They can become supervisors and directors over our various verticals.”

RETIREMENT

In Illinois 36 percent of a 1,500-strong workforce will become eligible to retire in the next year and a half. About 20 percent of them will likely depart right away, with further exits expected. But Bhatt won’t let them get far: Most will come back on as contractors soon after they leave. 

“These are people who have been in the job for a long time,” he said. “They are managing and maintaining systems they built 30 years ago. We are on a very aggressive modernization path and their institutional knowledge is extremely helpful in that effort, because they know how these systems and processes work.”

Institutional knowledge is a big motivator when it comes to managing late-career IT professionals. Department chiefs want to tap that expertise before it walks out the door, but at the same time, these senior people tend to have their hands full. That’s where the post-retirement rehire becomes a valuable play. 

In Louisiana, Howze typically has at least 20 retirees on board as contractors at any given time. The department operates a vast inventory of legacy systems, “and in many cases we have no one else available with the knowledge of how to operate and maintain those systems,” he said. Often a retiree won’t have time before leaving to train someone else on the minutiae of older systems and applications. Rehiring that retiree “gets us over the hump. It gives us time to properly transition someone in, time to properly plan for the modernization of that product.”

At the same time, some are looking to capture that institutional knowledge pre-retirement, to codify and transfer the long-timers’ insights before they leave the workforce.

“Our IT department is in the process of building a knowledge base that details our systems and services. The knowledge base is a good place to capture how systems are configured and supported and aids in troubleshooting issues that arise by including incidents and their resolution,” Salafranca said. 

In White Plains, Coakley takes a hands-on approach to this. As often as possible, he wants his mid-career people working side-by-side with his senior players.

“Some of the younger people have never seen some of that legacy technology, so it’s important for them to learn it from someone who understands it well,” he said. “It also helps to have the tacit knowledge that comes with having been there at the time the decisions were made: Knowing why things were done the way they were done represents an important dynamic.”

There’s a feedback loop here. By preserving that institutional knowledge, management sets up mid-careerists to achieve success, and this in turn builds the kind of workplace that attracts new recruits. In this sense, IT workforce management is by necessity a holistic endeavor. Investments made at any point in the chain inevitably ripple backward and forward, boosting recruiting, driving retention and ensuring those at the end of their career can make the maximum contribution, thus fueling future cycles.”

Adam Stone Contributing Writer

A seasoned journalist with 20+ years' experience, Adam Stone covers education, technology, government and the military, along with diverse other topics. His work has appeared in dozens of general and niche publications nationwide.