Work Force: University Helps CIO Bridge IT Talent Gap

Thirsty for interns, the CIO of Los Angeles County's Department of Public Works relies upon a neighborly university.

by / June 25, 2008

If you're a recent college graduate with a bachelor's degree in computer science or a related field, which do you choose: the lure of potentially higher salaries in private industry or the security of a public-sector job?

For the last 25 years, some computer science students enrolled at California State University, Los Angeles, have taken advantage of a longstanding internship program that places them with public-sector agencies. But now, school officials struggle to find enough interns for the participating agencies, and it has nothing to do with students flocking to the private sector.

The last couple of years, there literally haven't been enough interns enrolled to fill available slots in government agencies hungry to find young, talented recruits.

Founded in 1983, Cal State L.A.'s Computer Professional Internship program has given seniors and graduate students studying in the departments of information systems, computer science and computer engineering at several L.A.-area universities a head start in finding full-time employment after college. Interns are hired on a contractual basis and receive an hourly wage and full benefits, including vacation days. They must maintain a minimum 3.0 grade point average and carry at least a part-time course load in the evening. In most cases, interns are expected to put in a standard 40-hour workweek.

What's the payoff for such a hectic schedule? If the intern excels, he or she stands a good chance of being hired to a full-time job. Universities nationwide have seen sharp enrollment declines in computer science degree programs. That factor, combined with a looming wave of retirements by the baby boomers, has boiled it down to a simple case of supply and demand.

"While that's not all IT, it's even harder to get folks in IT because there's great demand," said Jesse Juarros, CIO of the L.A. County Department of Public Works (DPW), one of the agencies that utilize the Computer Professional Internship program. Enrollment in college computer programs has actually gone down, he said. "So when you have less enrollment and higher demand, it is very difficult to attract people and keep that pipeline full. We have money for interns, but we can't even bring them in [sometimes] because they aren't available."

The program is an integral recruiting tool, Juarros said, adding that the DPW also has hired sought-after college graduates from all over Southern California, including Cal State, Long Beach; Cal State, Northridge; Cal State, Dominguez Hills; Cal Poly Pomona; University of California, Irvine; University of Southern California; University of California, Los Angeles; and others.

"Why this program is unique [is] that the Cal State L.A. program does everything for you, and then sends you the intern," Juarros said. "We can bring someone in within a week or two."

Interns Don't Make Coffee
The partnership between Cal State L.A. and the DPW is especially close, if for no other reason than geography. The campus and the agency are literally down the street from each other, less than 3 miles apart. The proximity often is a deciding factor for students weighing, upon graduation, job prospects in the more lucrative private sector versus public service.

According to Adam Huarng, professor and chair of Cal State L.A.'s Department of Information Systems, who also coordinates the internship program the DPW pays well. "As an internship, they pay $14 per hour, but the beginning salary is at least $60,000. And some students, they prefer job security, and they don't want to leave town -- because most of our students are local. The Public Works Department is close to campus and their homes."

Furthermore, the opportunity to audition for a job is also attractive.

Many employees at the DPW are Huarng's former students. "After they go there, they hire them," Huarng said. "They are now using this internship as a screening process for three to six months. If they like the person, they can hire them for a permanent job."

But the process is a two-way street, Juarros said. Interns are afforded the chance to see what public-sector life is all about.

"It's important to us, when we bring an intern in, that we don't stick them in a back, dark room and make them do photocopies all day because that's not valuable to anybody, and doesn't help inspire or develop the interns by doing that," Juarros said. "We actually put them on the line with experienced programmers so that they can learn from and be mentored by them, which means they are in front of real customers, programs and projects that add to the excitement and the stress. It gives them a feel for what it might be like to have the job full time."

In the 25 years of the internship program's existence, the DPW has taken 43 interns and later hired 15 of them permanently. Other agencies -- the city of L.A. and the city's Department of Water and Power -- also rely on the program as a pipeline for new hires.

The interns are introduced to many facets of the business, including working with customers and vendors, and building applications. For example, a DPW intern is working on a customer survey and doing hands-on programming with minimal oversight. Another intern is doing a document management project. Many others work on developing government Web sites using ColdFusion.

Max Khanukayev, an application developer for the DPW, first came to the agency as an intern. He said he was initially attracted to the apprenticeship because of the flexible work hours and because it was a paid position with full benefits when working 30 hours per week or more.

"What kept me here is the hands-on experience I'm getting, because while I'm working on projects I get to be exposed to various technologies," he said.

Big Demand, Low Supply
The number of declared computer science majors in the United States has declined by half since 1998, according to the latest Taulbee Survey by the Computer Research Association. The same downward trend held true at Cal State L.A.'s Department of Information Services: "A couple years ago, we had a lot of students, so bringing students to [the DPW] has never been a problem. But now we have a problem," Huarng said. "We don't have enough."

At the same time, 40 percent of California's public-sector IT work force is expected to retire over the next three years as baby boomers cash in their retirement accounts and head home for good.

The confluence of a dwindling supply of young workers and an expected boom of retirements has been lamented within the industry for years now. It has left many IT managers worried about how to fill the ranks going forward. Partnerships such as the Cal State L.A.-DPW pipeline become all the more important in this job environment, Juarros said.

"E-government has gone through its stage of, 'How can we provide services out there to the customer?' A lot of that's been tapped into. It's also now gone into, 'How can we improve our processes using the Web?'" he said. "There's a huge need for people with those types of skills to help supplement our work force. These interns tend to be excited about being involved in that type of work because it's cutting edge and what they're learning [in school], and it's what's going on in government and the [private sector]."

Juarros said the public sector may be perceived to be at a disadvantage when attracting new workers, but he said working in government has an allure all its own for the Millennial generation: a sense of satisfaction working on behalf of the public, while also being exposed to the latest technologies. "These are things that aren't related to the bottom line."

Matt Williams Associate Editor
Platforms & Programs