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The Future of the IT Workforce

CIOs are rethinking the hiring process as they seek leaders to replace an aging IT workforce.

As baby boomers near retirement age, public-sector CIOs are faced with numerous staffing challenges. They must replace the technical knowledge and expertise of technologists leaving the workforce, and it must be done in a rapidly changing field where today’s skill sets might not be relevant in the near future.

Those issues aren’t new, but in many state and municipal governments, the percentage of IT workers eligible for retirement in the next five to 10 years has skyrocketed, making it a more immediate problem. With mass exodus of experience a distinct possibility, the situation has forced CIOs to re-evaluate the makeup of their IT workforce and how to attract young talent to public service.

The prevailing thought of many IT leaders is that if they invest in well rounded personnel with leadership skills, they can hang onto up-and-coming employees by moving them up the chain of command quickly and giving them diverse project responsibilities. To do that, however, the type of job candidate that government IT departments are looking for is evolving.

It’s no longer good enough to be the best and brightest when it comes to server maintenance or programming. As many public-sector IT “lifers” who are experts on a particular system step down, CIOs plan to replace them with people they can groom for multiple jobs.

Ohio is a great example, with approximately 2,500 IT workers across 26 agencies and 70 boards and commissions. And in the coming years, nearly one-third of those employees are eligible for retirement.

Instead of rehiring the same position when an employee leaves, Ohio CIO Stu Davis is looking at the departures as a way to reduce the complexity of the state’s infrastructure through consolidation and a transformation of the existing workforce. Current employees will be considered for promotion, and new hires will be brought in at a lower level, trained and set on a path that helps them transition into IT leadership roles.

Photo: Ohio CIO Stu Davis sees upcoming retirements as a way to remake the state’s IT workforce.

Davis explained that Ohio has had situations where an agency might have had a staff of 10 IT people and lost its top three workers to retirement. Through an IT workforce transformation plan, he hopes to “fill the gap” with similarly skilled workers from other departments.

“We want to be able to pull people from the agencies who are familiar with those systems in some fashion or another,” Davis said. “Not everyone will know the application, but certainly they know how to care for a server. And we can leverage them while we look at a shared solution down the road. That’s what we’ve been trying to pontificate and evangelize, and so far it seems to be working.”

The “silver tsunami” is also crashing down on Tennessee’s IT workforce. State CIO Mark Bengel explained that losing IT employees to retirement is particularly challenging in Nashville, where the unemployment rate for technology workers is just 2.8 percent. The state has a hard time competing with the private sector for young technologists.

To address the issues, Tennessee developed the Next Generation IT initiative, in which the state will focus on meeting future staffing needs by growing its talent pool through an investment in technical, communications and leadership training.

Tennessee has moved its IT hiring focus to entry-level positions through partnerships with state colleges and universities in order to get talent through the state’s door. By standardizing the state’s methodologies and practices across agencies, IT leaders can promote from within and hopefully retain promising employees.

To that end, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration has authorized a program whereby all 1,600 state IT employees will reapply for their jobs. The idea is to align people with the appropriate job classifications to make the hiring and retention processes easier so the right staff members have the appropriate levels of knowledge, skills and abilities.

The state’s old IT job classifications were catch-all titles from decades ago and out of date with today’s skill sets. So modernizing that system was necessary to ensure that the Next Generation IT initiative would work. Bengel said that with the changes in place, the governor put a significant monetary investment behind the idea, committing $2.5 million per year for a training academy for Tennessee’s IT employees.

As people retire, Tennessee will have a new IT organizational chart that features technical and management tracks to help reward and promote workers who are qualified to advance into other roles. At the same time, new hires will help build and grow the foundation of the state’s IT team.

“We only go to the outside as an absolute last resort, so we’re pulling people up into the next level of their career and training them on an upward path,” Bengel said.

Competition from the private sector in a rebounding economy doesn’t help matters. Even if an agency successfully replaces a retiree, retaining the new employee can be equally difficult. As in most fields, money talks and makes an impact on tech-savvy workers who are weighing career prospects.

But it’s not just the almighty dollar that sways technologists to pursue a private-sector career. The technology they get to work on can be a sizable deciding factor as well.

Al Short, CIO of the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration (MMVA), said his team is responsible for a COBOL-based legacy system that’s used to license drivers and register vehicles. Many IT staff members who work on that mainframe system are nearing retirement age, and Short is struggling with how it’s going to be maintained. Short knows he must modernize existing infrastructure while also having staff members capable of running the old mainframe.


Photo: State hiring rules make it tough to retain promising interns, says Al Short, CIO of the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration.

Even if pay weren’t an issue — and it is, given a large slate of private technology companies and opportunities in the Baltimore-Washington, D.C., area that compete with the state for IT talent — the type of technology work available at the MMVA may not have long-term appeal to the administration’s younger tech workers.

“I can talk about our future or projects, but a lot of the folks in the younger generation are looking for the opportunity to work on cool techie stuff or mobile applications,” Short said. “They don’t see the benefit to coming and working for a state agency on legacy applications or converting [them] to counter-facing citizen applications.”

John Letchford, CIO of Massachusetts, shares Short’s frustration. Letchford said the IT worker turnover rate for state agencies is about double what it was for the entirety of fiscal 2012, including twice as many people through voluntary resignations.

It’s a tough pill to swallow for Massachusetts’ tech czar because of the amount of time and training the state invests in its IT people, only to watch them jump for another opportunity, particularly in the competitive Boston area.

Finding the right IT talent also has become more difficult for Raleigh, N.C. Raleigh faces stiff competition from companies in the Research Triangle, and the city has seen the number of applicants for its IT jobs drop significantly in the past year.

Gail Roper, CIO of Raleigh, recalled that a year ago she’d get 100 resumes for an open position on her IT staff of 80 people. Today the situation is staggeringly different: During her most recent recruitment, she received only five. Roper said that while public service and local government in particular offers a stable work environment, the younger generation is likely gravitating toward higher pay or a more flexible work-life balance from employers.

“This is the first time that we have four generations in the workplace, so it is no longer a cookie-cutter solution for anyone,” Roper said. “I think it is really important today to have discussions early in the hiring process about what is important to the employee and the organization so it is a good match.”


Photo: Raleigh’s Gail Roper says it’s getting harder to compete with private-sector employers.

With young technologists apt to change jobs more frequently and the public sector struggling to bring in new blood in light of retirements, the solution may be a philosophical change in how IT hiring is done.

Tennessee has added dotted lines to its IT organizational chart so people in specific roles can see paths to move up in their career. For example, workstation support specialists can pursue additional roles as network technicians or other positions that match their interests.

Tennessee hired a contractor to assess each state agency and estimate the IT skills and number of employees that are required to meet the business needs. That information was then worked into the state’s hiring practices.

“There’s an old adage that says ‘hire attitude,’” Bengel said. “You can get the rest of it. Certainly in technology there’s a base level of technical skill that you just have to have. But if we’re growing people, we can train and develop people who are eager and willing to learn.”

Letchford agreed and said a mainframe system is the perfect example. When most of the people who manage Massachusetts’ mainframe retire, he’s “pretty sure” the state will look to a third party to manage it and then retrain the remaining people to work in other areas.

In addition, as more applications are moved to the cloud, there won’t be as great a need for positions like server technicians and people who can troubleshoot an obsolete system. That can lead to new roles that embrace a different kind of IT worker, such as a service manager to handle cloud contracts.

According to Letchford, Massachusetts is researching that sort of position. He added that in the future, the state needs to focus on technologists who drive business value and recruit people more for their ability to innovate and work effectively, rather than specialized skills.

Retaining new employees might also require a change in management style for some CIOs. Roper explained that she now plans projects in three- to five-year blocks for new hires, with the expectation that they’ll leave after the project is completed.  

Roper added that another difference now is how managers communicate with employees. Although it wasn’t a big deal in the past to send a text or email to her IT staff members late at night to get a task out of her head and onto their plate, she’s seen it become a work-life balance issue for 20-somethings.

“I am very careful now because it’s intrusive to the younger generation, and they don’t want to do that,” Roper said. “I think the whole concept of 24/7 IT is kind of fading.”

Ohio’s Davis pointed out that the culture shift isn’t just in government — the private sector is facing it too. He believes more people are going to move around within their domains and disciplines, while expecting employers to be agile enough to meet their needs.

Changing the mentality of CIOs and other supervisors is something Davis says will be critical to meet the demands of talented workers, particularly if he and his colleagues want to attract them to the public sector. “The thing we have today, which is you come in, we chain you to a desk and put you on a big clunky workstation, is not going to work anymore,” he said. “These kids are coming in from college and expecting the same things they have today.”

As the focus on talent shifts from technical ability to business analysis and leadership skills, some state and local agencies have begun working with universities to encourage a broader curriculum.

Letchford said there is an opportunity to improve alignment between education and skill demand. Whereas a private-sector employer might be more interested in individuals who are focused on the nuts and bolts of technology to drive new products or services, Massachusetts is seeking people who will generate business value for government.

To that end, Massachusetts is discussing the skill gap issue with higher education institutions. The state also is evaluating the skills of its current workforce and attempting to retrain employees to meet future demands. For example, Letchford said 20 percent of the state’s IT staff is tied to infrastructure, whether in networking, hosting or storage. But he doesn’t anticipate needing anywhere near the same number of people in those roles in the next five years because of improving efficiency for onsite equipment and the industrywide shift toward cloud-based services.

Grooming college interns for government careers is a possibility, but agencies have had mixed results with that option. Short struggles to retain IT interns at the MMVA. The agency trained several promising interns over six months to be PC support technicians, he said, but when the internship ended, they still lacked the state-required experience necessary to get an entry-level IT position. Short said he’s working with human resources officials to modify the hiring requirements.

On the other hand, Davis has done well with retaining IT interns in Ohio. The key, he said, is involving interns in challenging projects, allowing them to be part of something important.

“We’ve had some good luck with interns that we’ve brought in who are interested in staying,” Davis said. “There is enough variety in the things that we do, especially within an agency, where you can move around and get a sense of all the parts and pieces.”

Bengel encourages agencies to stress the positives of public service in their recruitment efforts. He believes being a key cog in an important effort will lure young technologists into a public-sector career.

“There [are] three big things that government offers that certain types of people really like,” Bengel said. “One, we get to play with really big toys … two, we deal with really big problems, and three, we can make a big difference when we do it right. There is a certain number of people who really get addicted to that.”

Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology magazine from 2011 to mid-2015.