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How to Get and Keep Next-Generation IT Talent in Government

To cultivate a technology workforce that can lead an organization into the future, state and local government must emphasize its mission-driven work, invest in training and take a cue from industry on work environment.

Teri Takai and Phil Bertolini, Center for Digital Government Co-Directors.
Government Technology
“The times, they are a-changin,” comes to mind when we look at technology or pop culture. Technology is advancing at a staggering rate and one just has to watch a current movie to see the incredible graphics that transport us to a completely different world. Well, times are changing for government as well, especially when it comes to the ability to recruit and retain the best technology talent possible. Government is in a pitched struggle to staff their organizations with quality professionals. Why is this happening?

For one, technology is changing so fast that the skills of technology professionals become outdated faster than ever before. Coupled with the massive retirements on the horizon — some say 30 percent of staff will retire in the next five years — the inability to recruit replacements places government at a disadvantage. The private sector is recruiting technology workers before they graduate from college, before they attend college or even earlier. These same companies are planning culture-altering technology shifts by moving forward with technologies like artificial intelligence and blockchain.

Making it even harder for government to compete with private-sector opportunities is the fact that government is also perceived by many as less than innovative and a home for the working retired. Government work environments are also perceived to be stale and inefficient. Newer technology professionals do not want to work in a lackluster work culture so many will not even entertain the possibility of taking a job in government. At the Center for Digital Government (CDG), we see the issue of recruitment and retention as a top priority right alongside cybersecurity.  But what can we do?

We can start by changing the perception of government. Today’s government is not your parent’s government any longer. The work is innovative and the core mission aligns well with the purpose-driven work sought by so many in the newer generations of workers. Government exists to provide, serve and help people which satisfies the latest generation’s need to make a difference. And technology is booming in state and local government: just look at the CDG estimate of government technology spending for 2020, over $100 billion.

Next, we need to be part of a cultural shift in how we engage newer technology experts. We should implement more flexible work environments that enable telework, nontraditional workweeks, and redesigned physical environments to mirror those of more desirable private-sector workplaces. I am sure that we all agree that we will never have cargo nets to climb or slides from floor to floor but, at a minimum, we can open up floorplans to provide more collaborative workspaces. For example, the simple addition of sit-to-stand desks, costing about $400 each, transforms traditional surroundings into more modern workspaces almost immediately.

To round out our efforts, we must invest in our teams by providing the education they need to keep up with the incredible pace of technology change. And that investment must go beyond just education. It must be part of a larger organizational transformation where the entire attitude of the organization shifts with the times. Again, we can all agree that not every team member will be able to grow their skills in every emerging technology, but investing in professional development is a major contributor to employee satisfaction. A lack of investment leads to a workforce that will become limited in ability and totally disengaged.

We intend to engage government technology leaders on this very issue during 2020. The impending Digital States, Cities and Counties surveys inquire about what you are doing as government leaders to work these people issues. Success in building your teams is part of our mission and we look forward to working with you all to get it done. “The times are a-changin'” and we are ready to help you change too.

Teri Takai and Phil Bertolini are co-directors of the Center for Digital Government.