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IT Work Force Shortage Forces Government to Change Recruiting Methods

CIOs alter work environments to attract young IT workers to government and retain them.

by / January 31, 2008

The IT industry's projected shortage of information technology workers may hit government the hardest. Student headcounts in college IT programs are shrinking nationwide. Public and private IT departments face a "brain drain" as thousands of baby boomers approach retirement age. Demand for geeks is rising, and government will face steep competition from private companies for younger IT workers.

State IT department heads are worried, according to the National Association of State Chief Information Officers. The organization released a fall 2007 survey in which 80 percent of government respondents reported difficulty filling empty IT positions. Roughly 60 percent of respondents said they lacked confidence in their agencies' ability to promote staff to the positions baby boomers currently hold. Some government IT leaders expect to lose existing employees to the high salaries offered by private companies.      

"I was talking to a vendor today who said they were planning to hire 60,000 IT professionals in 2008. I nearly cried because I knew where some of them would come from, which is state government," said Dan Ross, Missouri CIO, in an October interview with Government Technology.

Civil service regulations in many states result in slower, less agile recruitment and application processes. Often, the most talented IT workers are quickly hired by the private sector before the state can make an offer. State government IT departments usually require executive or legislative action to make changes, especially for personnel issues.

How can governments compete?

Eliminating Old Barriers
California expects to lose roughly 40 percent of its IT work force to retirement in the next three years according to Mitzi Higashidani, chief deputy director of the California Department of Technology Services (DTS).

The decades-long practice of hiring entry-level people and slowly grooming them to fill upper management positions no longer works, said Higashidani. Too many people are retiring at once.

"When you have double digits, [40 percent], leaving at all levels of the organization, the civil service promotion process breaks down. You can't just bring in 40 percent of the new work force at the entry level for all of these management positions and high-level skills, like database administrators or network engineers," Higashidani said.

She said the DTS plans to make its hiring practices skills-based, rather than based on time spent working for the state. For decades, California has given only entry-level exams, which it offered roughly once every three years for prospective employees.

"If you came out of college and there was no entry-level exam list, you couldn't get hired until the state was going to do an open exam list. That's why we lost a lot of bright kids coming out of college, because they weren't going to wait nine or 10 months to get on a list to just get the interview to get hired. It's a very complicated process to learn how to get [a job] with the state," Higashidani said.

Over the next two years, California plans to develop an "open file" system in which an applicant can take an exam and go on a consideration list at any time. "Once you're on the list, the department could hire you the next day," Higashidani said.

The state will also offer exams for all entry levels, rather than just the bottom rung. "We won't have time to bring people in from the bottom of the organization and train them and develop them anymore," Higashidani said.

The DTS is also developing a pay structure that will compensate workers based on the skills they develop rather than the time they spend in government. Higashidani also acknowledged that state salaries lag behind the private sector, but she said compensation is comparable after including California's generous health and pension benefits.

"We get almost full health, dental and eye care. With private industry, you can't just look at matching salaries. You have to take your salary minus what you'd be investing in terms of retirement and health care, and dental and vision care," Higashidani said.

But convincing potential IT workers, especially younger workers typically aren't as vigilant about health as their baby boomer counterparts, Higashidani said. "They don't understand that health benefits are going to double in cost in the next few years. I predict that for a couple with two children, health care could cost more than $1,000 per month with private-sector benefits."

She said she uses those factors when pitching government IT as a career to college students.

If You Can't Beat Them ...
Virginia doesn't try to compete with private companies for skilled IT workers. Instead the state hired Northrop Grumman to run its everyday IT operations. Recruiting workers is Northrop Grumman's problem. Roughly 70 percent of Virginia's existing 1,000-person IT work force voluntarily became Northrop Grumman employees in July 2006. The vendor is better positioned to attract young IT workers, said Aneesh Chopra, Virginia secretary of technology.

"Northrop Grumman has a broader portfolio of recruitment levers that I believe minimize the amount of anxiety I feel in trying to attract a skilled work force. That's mostly because there is a clearer path to promotion. Northrop Grumman allows those who come to work for Virginia to be treated equally as they would if they wanted to migrate to a private client, another state or a federal client," he said. "It's a lot easier when you have a menu of long-term career choices available."

By comparison, an individual state agency might have six positions in its IT department, which limits workers' promotion prospects, said Chopra.

Additionally Northrop Grumman faces no governmental restrictions on the types of raises it gives those employees, making it easier to retain them. The vendor also is free to terminate the employees as soon as it doesn't need them.

"We only had a one-year commitment that they would guarantee their jobs. Northrop's role was to convince people that, 'If you take a little bit of risk, let us convince you that the likelihood of you leaving your job is virtually nil because of all the growth we're having in our business,'" Chopra said. 

The Virginia Information Technologies Agency (VITA) also created a work group to develop temporary contracts for application development projects. Virginia will have more than 100 business partners to choose from when developing applications. Officials hope the approach eliminates a common government problem: implementing new software with workers more experienced in outdated programming languages, such as COBOL.

"We see much more fluidity in the development of new software languages, new applications and architectures by using augmented staff. It is a lot more challenging to retool your [in-house] skills to meet the next generation's application platforms," Chopra said.

Chopra said he is worried about recruiting for high-ranking visionary technology positions, such as technological analysts, webmasters and CIOs. "The one area that keeps me up at night are the analytical resources that can balance between understanding agency requirements and technological capability. That skill set is very hard to come by, and is the one I'm most worried about filling," Chopra said.

He hopes to target workers who care more about public service than the technology aspects of the IT industry. Chopra thinks candidates for high-ranking jobs are receptive to sacrificing private-sector goodies for the opportunity to be part of an overarching government goal.

"Many times individuals will trade salary or some other component for the ability to do something like serve the public. I believe the public-service recruitment tool is stronger in this category of work force than something where your job is to fix Microsoft Word or some other part of the infrastructure. It might be harder to feel the connection between that and citizen value," Chopra said.

His staff spends more time with those potential government thought leaders.

"Because the numbers for these kinds of individuals are so small, we have the ability to take a hands-on approach to attracting them," Chopra said.

With a nod toward flexibility, Virginia invites these workers to join the government as three- to six-month contract workers to see if they like working for the state.

Get Them Young
Some CIOs take a more expansive view of possible solutions to the IT worker shortage. In Missouri, Ross believes pitching the IT profession to college students is a short-term fix with limited promise.

"We're trying to look for more than just the next year's crop of college graduates. My sense is once someone's entered college, it's unlikely that you're going to turn them on to an IT career. There are several classes they'd need to take to graduate with an IT degree, and if they're off in an unrelated area, they may almost have to start over again," Ross said.

The state plans to target junior-high and high-school students. "We've surveyed high-school and middle-school counselors, and we found that they don't have much of a concept of what IT jobs are like, and they have no idea about IT jobs in the public sector," Ross explained.

He plans to set up events for counselors to "indoctrinate" them on the value of working in government IT.

"We'll wow them with our statistics about the [shortage] of people going in the IT pipeline and the monstrous increase in demand for IT jobs," Ross said.

He said he will also emphasize the value of health-care benefits to school counselors. "State government benefits are nothing to laugh at. In Missouri, we value those from 40 percent to 45 percent of the starting salary, and I don't think private industry can claim that," Ross explained.

Higashidani plans to implement a college internship in 2008 that would promise the interns jobs with the state of California once they receive their degrees.  

Higashidani blames weak student interest in IT majors on the fact that IT programs are lumped in with engineering schools at universities. Unless a student has an engineering interest, he or she likely won't learn much about the IT profession. Higashidani said she meets many IT students who say they found the IT field by accident.

"We're working with the colleges to see if they can create an information technology college to give this profession more excitement because enrollment is dropping and they're canceling classes," Higashidani said.

Island of Interest on Second Life
Some baby boomer IT leaders are taking advantage of technologies they might have previously thought to be silly in order to appeal to cutting-edge, young IT workers. A prime example is Second Life, a Web-based, 3-D virtual world where users can interact using an avatar, a graphical representation of themselves they can maneuver in the virtual world.

Ross and his staff created a presence in Second Life in conjunction with various Missouri libraries and universities to share space on what's called an "island of interest."

"We've been establishing our presence out there, working up information about IT jobs in Missouri, and really working on making our image out there bright and crisp," Ross said.

"You have to practice so that your avatar can move smoothly, walk around things, and not trip over them. It's much like a video game, and it seems odd, but there are 9 million entities out there. Just like the real world, there are things that are inappropriate and things that are truly businesslike," Ross said.

Roughly a dozen Second Life users so far have shown interest in Missouri IT jobs, Ross said. Everything in Second Life is considered to be "in-world," and Ross started receiving queries from prospective employees after giving interviews to a few "in-world" reporters.

Missouri's Second Life IT-worker recruitment presence features mostly static information, but Ross hopes to create an interface allowing prospective employees to ask questions and receive answers.

The California Department of Motor Vehicles, in similar high-tech fashion, now creates drivers' training videos and posts them on YouTube. Higashidani took that innovation as a sign: Prepare for IT workers who don't want to read.

"They learn by visuals and experience," Higashidani said. "I think this will be the generation that does not know how to write. They don't do enough reading or writing. If you've ever read any of their [instant messages], they don't even use complete sentences. ... I don't think they care about the writing as long as they understand what's being communicated."

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Andy Opsahl

Andy Opsahl is a former staff writer and features editor for Government Technology magazine.

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