ORLANDO, Fla. — In mid-2013, Tennessee embarked on a journey — it had all of its IT personnel reapply for their jobs. The reason? To keep its employees and their skills up to date. And at the 2016 National Association of State Chief Information Officers’ Annual Conference, Deputy CIO Stephanie Dedmon chatted with her peers about how Tennessee IT fared during the intense endeavor.
“We did a competitive procurement, and we had a vendor come in and do an assessment of all of our executive branch agencies to understand what some of their critical initiatives were, what their current skills were, what does their organization need to look like in the future, and what’s the path to get there,” Dedmon said. “That resulted in 24 different assessments, and some of our non-executive branch agencies have leveraged that contract to do assessments — our comptroller and secretary of state also took advantage of that.”
In addition to taking critical initiatives and current skills in these agencies under consideration, she said the Office of Information Resources looked at salaries, which increased about 10 to 25 percent.
“That was part of modernizing our workforce, we needed to up our salaries and be more competitive with the marketplace,” Dedmon added. “Obviously state government is probably never going to fully compete with the private sector, but we definitely feel like we made advancements there.”
Learning Tree International won the state’s competitive procurement, and Dedmon said the vendor and the state work as partners in developing operational advancement and improved performance for Tennessee’s IT workforce.
“We’re a little more than halfway into the five-year contract,” she said, “and we’ve developed a full-circle training experience that is based on the new job classifications.”
The vendor brought existing courseware and its own subject-matter experts, Dedmon added, and also was willing to customize existing training based on the state’s subject-matter experts.
“We developed a full breadth of curriculum for all of our IT [staff]; we spend a little over $2 million a year over five years, so a little over a $10 million contract,” she said. “We were able to achieve state funding to pay for this, and our pace in presenting our next-gen IT initiative was that we had a workforce that was really behind the times, we needed to retool our workforce — and this curriculum was all about success skills, not about making our nerds nerdier, this was about creating IT leaders.”
And this, Dedmon said, is what makes the initiative very different than what’s been done in the past. “This approach is based on adult learning and best practices, and provides accommodation both in class and online, and a number of support mechanisms have also been put in place.”
Richard Spires, CEO of Learning Tree and former CIO of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the IRS, noted that not only does the IT agency have access to the workforce solution, but all state agencies do as well.
“We are probably halfway through this journey as far as this contract vehicle, but obviously it never stops in workforce development,” he said. “When you look at the tactical things like pre- and post-results, assessments of someone’s skills prior to taking course and someone’s skills after taking that course, like 50 percent knowledge base in a particular area but then 75 percent after they’ve taken that course. It’s a dramatic shift.”
For CIOs, Spires added, "it’s all about outcomes, delivering projects on time and on budget, and providing IT service management more effectively.”
“These are the things that we’re starting to work on with the state of Tennessee,” he said. “What are the metrics that show that your investment in the IT workforce is actually helping you do more IT more effectively?”
Though no official metrics are in place yet, Dedmon noted that IT workers who have taken courses say that they’re delivering more value based on the training and they’re more effective in their jobs.
But what happens if you train someone and they leave? For Dedmon, the answer is another question: “What happens if you don’t and they stay?”
This is really a statement that shows we need to invest in our workforce, she said. “We need to retain the really good people; we need to invest in them,” she said. “And sometimes it’s not about salary. This is about improving our workforce so we can deliver better service to our customers.”
Still, skilled and valuable employees are a hot commodity, and the new generation of worker — the millennials — is often more interested in learning new things and having a variety of interesting experiences.
And that’s something Maine CIO Jim Smith does. He said he gets the message out there that if you work for IT in the Pine Tree State, “We're going to give you some really interesting experiences.”
That may keep talented and valuable workers around a little longer, but Spires noted that even then, "You just can't expect to hire these people now, especially millennials, and think you can keep them for 30 years. This is not a model of how they want to grow their careers. And to the extent you can provide different experiences, maybe they'll stay for a while, but to think they're going to stay 10 years, 15 years, that's not a realistic solution."
Looking at the public-sector cybersecurity workforce, CISOs also struggle with attracting and retaining talent, and are having to get creative. The 2016 cybersecurity report released Sept. 20 highlighted this talent crisis as one of the top two challenges CISOs face.
“CISOs are talking about using job stability, a challenging work environment and opportunity to serve and contribute to your state [as ways to attract talent],” said Deloitte Principal Srini Subramanian, adding that many millennials are looking for a role that will challenge them and where they feel like they can contribute.
Subramanian also questioned if there was potential in states training traditional IT staff in cybersecurity, something Indiana has a bit of experience with.
“When we post a security opening, a lot of our operation folks will come and apply,” said Indiana CISO Tad Stahl. “It’s a cherry-picking exercise; you have the opportunity to hire them, but it’s tough on other parts of the enterprise.”
Stahl also said the state has had a lot of success in finding future employees in less secure professions, like the contracting business, who are looking for stability, and in training interns up to become full-time employees.
In Washington, CISO Agnes Kirk said the state contends with the likes of Microsoft, Apple and other companies for tech and cyber talent, and can’t compete on salary, so it has looked at other recruiting methods, including the potential that returning veterans hold.
“Microsoft is training returning veterans in cybersecurity and transitioning them into successful positions,” she said, also mentioning that Holacracy, an organizational model that has no managers in the traditional sense and is being used in Washington Technology Solutions, can also better attract millennials.
And according to an IT study of high-tech jobs conducted by the state, jobs names that mean something can make a big difference, solidifying that the approach used in Tennessee was a solid move.
On the whole, though, recruiting and retaining IT and cyber workers is tough right now, Stahl said. “The environment is pretty good; people are feeling pretty secure compared to a few years ago.”
Jessica Mulholland served as the Web editor of Government Technology magazine from October 2012 through September 2017. She worked for the Government Technology editorial team for nearly 10 years.