CIOs Try New Methods for Retaining and Attracting Qualified Workers

As the government work force ages, CIOs use internships, Second Life to find new workers.

by / December 31, 2008

CIOs may see a storm brewing on the employment horizon - if masses of older workers leave in a retirement exodus, they'll have to work double-time to replace them with younger applicants. And evidence suggests that CIOs don't have much time to wait.

Consider this: The U.S. Census Bureau estimated that as of May 2008, the country had more than 77 million baby boomers - people ages 44-62. In 2008, the oldest members of the baby boom generation turned 62 - the minimum age for claiming Social Security benefits. And this trend will continue for years. It's possible for wave after wave to retire year after year, which could create a tsunami of job openings that ravages the public-sector service landscape.

Government officials are already bracing themselves.

"We know from our own research that 60 percent of our staff is eligible to retire over the next 10 years," said Dan Ross, CIO of Missouri. "Whether they will or not remains to be seen, and I suspect with rising prices on food and gas, they will work longer in the workplace than traditionally." He admits that he is unable to predict the outcome, but said the potential exists for a huge problem.

Take a trip to California and the effects are already being felt. Since Joyce Wing, CIO of Santa Clara County, took her position in 2006, she's actively engaged in succession planning to mitigate circumstances that might arise if too many people leave within a short time period.

Wing manages approximately 210 staff members, and 70 of them could retire right now if they wanted, she said. If they did, this would create a dilemma similar to when the department experienced a personnel crisis three or four years ago after the county offered staff a two-year retirement incentive package.


Video: Missouri state government uses Second Life to attract new IT workers.

"I had 31 people walk out in one day. That took us about a year to try to recover; that was hard. We tried to prepare, and a lot of people waited until the last minute because they weren't sure if they wanted to retire or not, and so they decided the last week," Wing said. She estimates that about 50 percent of county employees will be able to retire in 2010 or 2011. Naturally most states are trying to recruit fresh talent to mitigate the predicted worker shortage, but the results aren't comforting.

In September 2007, the National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO) released a report, State IT Workforce: Here Today, Gone Tomorrow?, that found a staggering 80.4 percent of survey respondents from 46 states said they were having difficulty recruiting new employees to fill vacant IT positions. Fifty-four percent of them said the shortage of candidates hindered strategic IT initiatives.

To many in government, the message is clear: Recruit more aggressively. Now.


The New Wave

There always will likely be enough preretirement-age applicants in their 30s, 40s and 50s eager to fill voids left by outbound baby boomers; many employers are also interested in recent college graduates or those who will graduate soon. These younger citizens are commonly called Millennials, many of whom could grow into government careers.

Demographers disagree on exactly what birth years make someone a Millennial, though it's generally accepted that the first Millennials were born around 1977. For government, what's more important than when they were born is how to get them into public service.

Bill Willis, deputy CIO of North Carolina, said IT departments should accommodate Millennials' technology habits in order to attract them to the public-sector work force. "We may have to get more flexible," he said. "Right now, security demands are pushing us, in many places, more and more

into locking down that desktop or laptop, yet the next-generation employee may not accept that lockdown."

When employers issue corporate- or government-owned equipment, they typically think in terms of strictly managed PCs or laptops, but younger workers might reject this control. For one thing, the Millennials' world includes more technological gadgets than just computers, like iPhones for example. And they don't just use these devices at work.

"They are people who have the technology and their access to the network and the communications embedded in the way they live, not just as something that they use for work," Willis said.

Just as employees prefer different types of pens, next-generation workers may feel the same way about the devices they use to access employers' networks. "One of them is going to like one kind of appliance to get in, the other might like another," he said. PDAs, cell phones, etc., for young people - the digital sky is their limit.

Oklahoma's state government is successfully pushing young people to try public service. The Carl Albert Public Internship Program (CAPIP) is a state-run endeavor that's allowed a steady stream of college graduates to enter state employment. The internship, offered through the state's Office of Personnel Management, is a bridge between college and state service. Internships are provided at two levels: an undergraduate level and an executive fellowship level for graduate students. If the executive fellows work at least 1,000 hours a year, they are enrolled in state health insurance and retirement benefits programs while working to earn school credit, so they get a taste of what it's like to be full-time employees. And if they complete a two-year fellowship, they're eligible for full-fledged state employment.

"I'm going to guess, at any given time, we probably have 75 applicants and 40 to 50 interns working in state agencies," said Hank Batty, deputy administrator for programs at the Office of Personnel Management. He estimated CAPIP has had that number of participants consistently for at least the past few years.

"I'd say 90 or 95 percent convert to be regular state employees," said Denae Edwards, CAPIP's program coordinator. In addition, upon completing the executive fellowship, many of the interns join state service with a promotion. "We have several within our agency who were executive fellows at one time and now are managers and directors of departments, so it's a really good program to cultivate your future agency personnel."

Edwards joined the Office of Personnel Management in 2007, and has since, she's watched the program and its participants thrive.

"[When] agencies currently want to fill their talent pool with fresh, new, technologically savvy undergraduates and executive fellows, they come straight to CAPIP," she said. "We often have them request certain types of degrees and course backgrounds. We have all that information ready for them, so we're able to fulfill their needs whenever they need a certain type of student."

CAPIP has participating students from various fields of study, including IT. Enrollees come from 11 universities, some local and others out of state. The program is a sterling example of a college recruitment effort that works.

Meanwhile, Ross and his colleagues in Missouri's Information Technology Services Division (ITSD) have taken a high-tech approach to attracting Millennial employees to technology careers. In their efforts to attract young people who are well versed in the Internet's social networking power - exemplified by household names, such as Facebook and MySpace - the ITSD has held Second Life job fairs.

Second Life is a popular three-dimensional, online virtual world created by Linden Lab. Residents, as Second Life are called, create avatars and live vicariously through their digital representatives. Missouri hosted a virtual job fair in February 2008, which was popular enough to warrant a second one held on June 24, 2008. In September 2008, Missouri hired its first employee from Second

Life. The applicant, a computer-engineering graduate, was hired into the Department of Natural Resources as a developer. He attended the virtual job fair as a tiny cat with a red bow tie.

"We considered it a success. Our site was in good shape, and we had visitors and inquiries about jobs," Ross said of the February event. He said the state leased land in the virtual world for $100 and spent $6 more to purchase features to enhance its presence there. "If I just recruit one, just hire one person from there, the payback is immediate."

Some CIOs are luckier than others when it comes to recruiting new talent. Santa Clara County's Wing said her jurisdiction - home to the Silicon Valley - is a destination spot for IT talent, especially when the economy is down.

"Usually when the economy is doing really well, that's when we kind of hurt a little in trying to compete with the outside [firms], but because the economy's not doing as best as it could, we have a lot of talent that we've been able to bring in," she said.

According to Wing, younger IT professionals may seek government work for the stability, especially if they've been laid off from private companies. When she can, Wing has experienced workers mentor newer co-workers in a practice she calls "paralleling" - matching key subject-matter experts with younger individuals so knowledge can be passed down.

She also thinks CIOs should consider letting employees work remotely to make positions more attractive to next-generation applicants.

"They might start looking at telecommuting if some of these young people live in other areas - giving them the option to work from home," she said. She added that people can work off-site in order to spend less time driving, to avoid paying expensive gas prices and reduce pollution."


Motivating Generation Next

Of course, some feel that CIOs could do even more to fill department seats with young employees.

David Behen, CIO of Washtenaw County, Mich., doesn't think federal, state or local governments are taking this topic seriously. "When I talk to people about this issue, it's like people are trying to do something, but the wheels are spinning and it really hasn't caught on yet," he said. "And I'm afraid it's going to be too late when it catches on," he said.

Behen is the vice chair of the Public Technology Institute's CIO Council, which guides government IT leaders in handling technology opportunities and challenges. He has also given presentations at conferences nationwide, in which he informs CIOs of the need to recruit Millennials. Like North Carolina's Willis, he thinks CIOs should adapt to the changing technology landscape that the younger generation is familiar with.

"I have a 6-yearold, a 5-year-old and a 2-year-old. None of them will know the world without Google," Behen said. "None of them will know the world without cell phones, high-speed Internet [or] wireless technology. The way that government provides services now is going to be tremendously different for these young adults."

He added that government should educate young adults on the value of public service. "We need to start recruiting at an early age, making public service a viable option for folks as they look at careers," he said.

That means talking to high school students and recruiting at colleges to foster a sense of pride in serving. "We as a government, as local officials, need to get out there and start promoting government service," he said.

Missouri's Ross has sent teams from his department to visit middle schools and high schools to persuade students that IT careers are attractive life paths. But when his team asks students to draw pictures of people who work with

computers, they portray workers unflatteringly.

"Ten years ago we went into the ninth-grade class here in the capital city and asked ninth-graders to draw a picture of what IT professionals look like, and they all drew nerdy, white, bald guys with black glasses with a paper clip holding them together and wearing lab coats," he said. And in recent years, the portrayals haven't changed much except for more female professionals being depicted the same way.

So how interested, exactly, are young people in IT careers?

Recent data compiled by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) at the U.S. Department of Education suggests that university technology degrees may not yet be ready for the endangered list.

The NCES Digest of Education Statistics compiled in 2007 presents the following information on recent bachelor's degrees earned by students:

  • 47,480 computer and information science degrees were conferred in the 2005-2006 school year, compared to 44,142 in the 2000-2001 school year;
  • 67,045 engineering degrees were conferred in the 2005-2006 school year, compared to 58,315 in the 2000-2001 school year;
  • 14,770 mathematics and statistics degrees were conferred in the 2005-2006 school year, compared to 11,171 in the 2000-2001 school year; and
  • 20,318 physical sciences and science technologies degrees were conferred in the 2005-2006 school year, compared to 17,919 in the 2000-2001 school year.


Golden Years and Golden Resources

Although CIOs are in hot pursuit of younger applicants, most of them aren't disregarding the value of older, more experienced workers. It's quite common for government to lure back retirees as consultants or part-time employees.

California, for example, devised a way for retirees to return to employment. In September 2006, California unveiled its Boomerang program, an online database that allows retirees to register for part-time work and input their interests and skills. On the back end, state agencies can search through the registrant data to see who the best fits are for open positions. Andrew Armani, director of California's eServices office, which helps develop state e-government solutions, said Boomerang had 2,586 retired state annuitants listed as of July 31, 2008.

"We've seen departments hiring from that list, and I've had a lot of great feedback about it because it's really easy," Armani said. "You have got information for retirees right there, and the discipline that they're either looking for or they're expert in, and it's been very successful."

Boomerang is also a cost-effective method of acquiring talent. "You don't really have to pay benefits to retirees because they're already drawing benefits, so all you have to give them is straight salary," he said.

Another approach may be to create incentives for older workers to delay retirement. The federal government already does this, indirectly, through the Social Security system - the longer people wait to retire, the better the benefits. However, state governments seem less receptive. In the 2007 NASCIO survey, 93.3 percent of respondents said they didn't offer incentives to employees to postpone retirement.

Many cities and counties may be similarly hesitant because of the lukewarm economic climate. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, state and local governments are considering cuts in retiree pension and benefits programs between 2006 and 2016. If this happens, there will likely be fewer people competing for public-sector positions.

On the other hand, reduced benefits and pensions in a bearish economy - or simply the need to survive in such an economy - could motivate older workers to delay retirement.

"A lot of companies have dropped retiree health programs; they don't exist anymore. So in order to get health benefits, at least until you're 65 and eligible for Medicare, you have to keep working," said Eric Toder, senior fellow of the Retirement Policy Program at the Urban Institute. The program studies economic and demographic trends in

older Americans. "Jobs have fewer physical demands these days, so you have less people in the kind of manufacturing, construction work that you physically can't do if you get older. The population is healthier and is expecting to live longer, and so they'll need to support themselves longer."

Toder is one of many who are finding ways to motivate older workers to stay in the office. He participated in a roundtable discussion on worker retention sponsored by the Urban Institute; the institute published the talking points in a 2008 document titled Capitalizing on the Economic Value of Older Adults' Work. The ways to retain older workers included part-time employment, flexible work schedules that vary over the workday or workweek, job sharing, telecommuting, "snowbird" programs that let employees work in different locations seasonally, altering workplaces to make them less physically demanding, and rehiring retirees for short-term projects.

To some CIOs, these options aren't new ideas. "Rehiring part-time people, we do quite a bit of that," Ross said. "We're very open to that. They retire from the state and they can't work over 1,000 hours a year or it will screw up their retirement that they've already got coming. So then if we keep them less than 1,000 hours a year, then they can come back and get the state health insurance, which is a bargain."

Wing rehires retirees because she needs them to work on mission-critical systems that only the most experienced employees can handle.

"Our property system - some of our staff are retiring and it's going to take another two or three years until that system's completed, so we have reached out to them saying, 'Can you come back and help us during the busy business cycle?'" she said.

It seems that though employers will have to fill vacant positions with younger employees, some older workers will still be available to make the transition easier. In fact, there's speculation that the nature of how people relate to the workplace throughout their lifetimes might change.

"As the age composition of the work force changes, it's going to affect the nature of the workplace as well," Toder said. "Maybe we'll get more to a society where the norm is, instead of really working like gangbusters until you're 60 and then stopping, it's more of a mode that mixes work and other things throughout your working life."

Hilton Collins

Hilton Collins is a former staff writer for Government Technology and Emergency Management magazines.

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