Can CIOs inject some “coolness” into government IT jobs? That’s a question more public officials are pondering as the long-projected baby boomer retirement wave inches closer and the job market for private-sector technology workers heats up.

Our research shows that hiring and retaining qualified IT personnel ranks among the top priorities for state and local CIOs, which shouldn’t really shock anyone. What did surprise us, however, is that technologists currently working in the public sector appear to be less engaged than employees in other areas of government.

When asked if they believe their job can “make a difference,” just 71 percent of IT workers answered affirmatively.

By contrast, the average for all public-sector job classifications surveyed was 85 percent — and some categories were markedly higher, like human resources professionals (89 percent) and elected officials (93 percent).

If current government IT workers don’t view their jobs as particularly rewarding, that doesn’t bode well for attracting a new generation of employees to these positions. Perhaps that’s why we’re starting to see people like Michael Cockrill fill CIO positions. Cockrill, a veteran of several Seattle tech startups, says Gov. Jay Inslee named him Washington state CIO to overhaul the government’s IT culture.

“I kind of think about it as doing all the things it takes to create a culture that would attract a senior in college,” Cockrill says. “You need a mobile worker, you need an agile culture, and you need a breadth of interesting new technologies. And it needs to be happening in the context of the 21st century.”

Cockrill has only been on the job for a few months, and he admits that modernizing the state’s IT bureaucracy and instilling a more entrepreneurial approach will be a heavy lift. But with almost 40 percent of his staff eligible for retirement, the state must develop an environment that attracts new employees and nurtures existing workers.

Ironically, Cockrill and plenty of others say the public sector could be an ideal employer for young IT workers if a few hurdles could be removed.

“Government has a lot of the things that young IT professionals want. There’s tons of opportunity; there’s upward mobility; there’s a broad range of technologies,” he says. “The issues are how do they live within a relatively narrow cultural box.

And how does state government change itself to allow them to work the way they always have, and the way we know people will work in the future?”

Finding the right answers to those questions will be crucial as public agencies recruit a new generation of IT talent.

Steve Towns  |  Executive Editor