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Facing Competition and Disruption, IT Job Classifications Get a Reboot

Governments are ditching the one-size-fits-all technology job classification system.

For decades, most state and local governments have had a one-size-fits-all job classification system. The typical IT department included titles like Technology Officer IV or Systems Analyst III with multiple pay bands from entry level to supervisor. While the classification system has served a valuable function — creating opportunities for employees to get jobs in higher-paid classifications or creating new classes of jobs to attract talent — times have changed, particularly in the technology sector.

First, the field has become extremely competitive, with the private sector aggressively hiring new talent, especially in the field of cybersecurity. Employees also want flexibility, with some working part time or short time, while others can perform complex tasks, such as configure a network over a smartphone, that once had to be performed on an expensive computer in the office. The result is a work environment that looks nothing like it did when the job classification system started expanding to meet the growth of the government sector in previous decades.

When you’re dealing with technical jobs and trying to compete with the private sector, this setup “doesn’t really work,” said Meredith Ward, a senior analyst with the National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO).

In September, NASCIO released its 2016 state CIO survey that found the No. 1 concern among respondents in regard to personnel reform was modernizing IT job titles and classifications. NASCIO’s 2015 workforce report found that 91.8 percent of CIOs said their salary rates and pay grade structure “present a challenge in attracting and retaining IT talent.” The response has been to review and restructure job classifications and pay bands.

To address this problem, some state and local governments began undertaking job reclassification initiatives. They range from sweeping changes to more nuanced efforts to modernize classifications in order to keep the government IT sector competitive with the private sector wherever possible.

One of the best examples of an IT job reclassification attempt began in Tennessee in 2013 and resulted in the opening of all 1,600 state IT positions to competitive bid; current employees were encouraged to reapply for the newly reclassified positions. The aim at that time was to halt a series of failed IT projects by building the IT workforce Tennessee needed to fulfill future staffing needs. CIO Mark Bengel moved first by filling those needs with current employees who could be put on new career paths that would help the state retain its best and brightest employees.

Today, as part of its job classification overhaul, Tennessee is using a vendor to develop operational advances and to improve performance for the IT workforce, according to Deputy CIO Stephanie Dedmon, who spoke about the experience during the 2016 NASCIO annual conference. She said the department has developed a “full-circle training experience that is based on the new job classifications.” By bringing in a partner — Learning Tree International — the IT department has access to courseware and subject-matter experts to help retool its workforce.

Harris County, Texas — which faces heavy competition from the oil and health-care industries — began an effort to retool its IT job classes in 2011. As an initial step, the Information Technology Center (ITC) began working with county leaders to make clear why it’s important to have “talented people and not just a whole bunch of people” serving in IT roles, said Bruce High, the county’s CIO. This meant paying IT staff competitive rates and ensuring that job descriptions fit the role being filled. The county worked closely with a private-sector consultant and relied heavily on pay scales and titles developed by Mercer, a firm recognized for its expertise on compensation and benefits, to get the county on a level playing field with the local IT industry. Today, the county has approximately 250 full-time employees, and continues to fill positions with candidates who have specialized talent and can hit the ground running.

In California, the departments of Technology and Human Resources are undertaking an IT Classification Consolidation Project that’s part of a larger statewide Civil Service Improvement (CSI) initiative. The project was born out of a 2014 review of the state’s 3,666 job titles to determine which could be removed, rewritten and consolidated. Reviewers ultimately recommended that more than 2,500 classifications be abolished.

The CSI project has led to similar findings — decades-old job classifications that are “desperately in need of taking a look at,” said Bryan Baldwin, chief of the state’s Personnel Management Division. Ultimately the IT and HR departments seek to streamline hiring by making job descriptions easier to understand to prospective employees from outside of government. “We’re really trying to make it so that qualified applicants can find good jobs with the state, that they understand the jobs and careers that they can have with the state of California, and how they can stay and where they can go,” said Baldwin.

Right now, California has approximately 60 IT job classifications, ranging from entry level to management level. “There is a lot of redundancy in our naming conventions,” said Julie Inderbitzen, the Classification Consolidation Project manager. She hopes that the modernization effort will help collapse some of the classifications and remove redundancies.

The IT department is still reviewing existing classifications and is closely collaborating with subject-matter experts to determine how to make the necessary changes. Once that effort is complete, the proposed changes will be discussed with the state’s public employee unions before it can be finalized.

Colorado is expanding its efforts to bring in the most qualified candidates by reviewing job classifications within the Governor’s Office of Information Technology (OIT). The IT effort will look at all current positions and streamline them into more common working titles like “developer” and “system administrator.” Currently OIT has four major classifications, which Karen Wilcox, the office’s HR director, called “part of the problem. It’s way too large a band, and you really want to break it down into something that is more relevant and meaningful so you can do better market analysis and benchmarking of the role,” she said.

Across the country in Montgomery County, Md., CIO Sonny Segal is heading up a job reclassification project that focuses on creating career paths for various IT positions. The changes occurred after the county realized it was losing high-performing individuals to the private sector.

“We could not sustain government operations using such automation if that trend continued,” said Segal. In creating its career paths, the IT department sought to recognize that “not all technical people aspire to be in professional ranks doing professional technical work all the time,” he said. So the county developed management and supervisory positions within its Management Leadership Service technical classifications. This set up a system in which technical people supervise technical staff, while also creating parallel tracks that let those who don’t desire management roles continue their upward mobility with the county by becoming IT experts.

Leadership Needed for Reclassification

Reclassifying IT jobs — or any government jobs for that matter — is difficult. Much of the classifications’ underlying structure is tied to pay ranges that are often written into department policies or law. Success in job reclassification requires strong partners and a change champion.

In California, Gov. Jerry Brown has been an ardent supporter of ensuring that positions across state government are reviewed so that they measure up to similar private-sector positions.

“The governor’s support is really critical. There have been previous efforts to try to reform and improve state government, but I do think that the emphasis, the backing of the administration, the willingness to put some resources in, has really helped us move faster than we would have otherwise,” said Baldwin. While the marching orders are to get as much done as possible under the current administration — within the next two years — the executive support has helped CSI move on a more aggressive schedule.

Harris County’s support also came from the top. When the reclassification effort began back in 2011, the IT department worked with the commissioner, the compensation administrator, the budget officer and HR. Communication and collaboration with these individuals helped get the project started.

“At the very beginning, there were more questions about what we’re trying to do, and once we took the emotion out and dealt strictly with the facts, and everyone understood that we aren’t pulling numbers out of the air just to be able to pay people more,” the project began moving forward, said Kevin Russell, deputy executive director for the Harris County Information Technology Center (ITC). This effort included having the compensation administrator meet with the agency’s outside analyst to review salary bands and midpoint salaries for IT positions in the Houston marketplace.

Transparency has been essential for sustaining the initiative, but “proving that you deliver” has been critical, said Russell. “We try to be accurate with everything we do, and that instills confidence. That’s given us the support to do what we need to do, in addition to attracting and retaining quality talent.”

Bringing Innovation into Recruitment

Job reclassification is one part of a larger evolution taking place in the public sector today. It’s clear that states and localities have recognized that they face recruitment and retention problems, and now they’re looking for innovative solutions to overcome these challenges and ensure they build the workforce they’ll need in the future.

State and local governments have employed a number of strategies in this area, from redesigning websites and creating mobile-first applications, to focusing on the benefits of government that cannot be found in the private sector. In particular, the call to public service and the ability to contribute to your community in a positive way are job qualities that are attractive to millennials, according to Colorado OIT’s Wilcox.

In Harris County and Colorado, they’re also emphasizing work-life balance and stability in government work. “They can leave at the end of the day and have that personal life,” said Tauna Lockhart, OIT’s chief communications officer and public information officer. And, High said, “we’re not going to be acquired, we’re not moving overseas. I think that’s important to people.”

Colorado’s reclassification of state tech jobs is part of a bigger effort to apply private-sector strategies to recruiting public-sector employees. Realizing that its “post and pray” recruitment methodology was no longer working, the state hired a recruiter to look at its competition to determine how it could attract new talent to the state, said Wilcox. This included training managers on how to recruit necessary talent, reaching out directly to potential candidates via partnerships with local colleges and universities, clearly defining job duties, and creating parity between classified and nonclassified positions. They also began measuring employee engagement to help keep the staff they already had. “How do we keep them … instead of just having them for two years and then they’re off to something else?” Wilcox said.

Agencies nationwide are learning that it isn’t just about getting employees in the door; it’s also about keeping them there. In IT positions in particular, government is seen as a stepping stone, a place to gain experience before moving on to a new project in the private sector. The ongoing job reclassification efforts have established clear career paths to encourage new and current employees to continue with the organization.

In Harris County, employees understand where their roles and responsibilities fit within ITC, but they also know where they’re going. ITC’s job descriptions are accessible to everyone in the organization so workers can determine the right career path for them. Every job within ITC is tied to performance, so that as employees determine their desired career paths, managers can tell them what they need to improve and provide the coaching and mentoring needed to progress along their chosen path. As part of the reclassification effort, ITC also developed architect and engineer positions to let employees increase their salaries by becoming experts instead of needing to move into management to reach a new pay level.

Segal said Montgomery County learned through its reclassification effort that many IT employees enter mid-career from the private sector instead of growing within government. Because of this, the consolidation effort reflects employees’ desire to have varied experiences and opportunities within the department. “The employees are ensured they’ll get lots of exposure, they can be moved around where needed. That keeps them growing significantly,” said Segal. Today, the county finds itself attracting contract personnel to apply for full-time positions with the county’s IT department, and they’re losing fewer staff members to the private sector.

Retaining the best employees also includes investment in those who want to continue to gain new skills in their current roles or who desire management roles. In Colorado, a learning development program not only offers technical recertifications, it also provides learning opportunities for softer skills required of IT managers. “If we want to build the best quality leaders we can, we needed to provide those trainings,” Wilcox said. In 2017, OIT will introduce a leadership program for those who want to move into management.

Many public-sector organizations are learning that when you begin making changes to help candidates find their niche within IT departments — and when you invest in your talented employees who are already there — word travels fast. Wilcox said that the employee referral program has grown by 6 to 7 percent during the past couple of years. “[Employees] realize there is some really cool stuff they are working on and there are positives for working for the state, and they tell their friends,” she said.

The same is happening in Harris County. “When people find out we’re hiring and doing innovative things, it’s interesting to see the people who are showing up to get jobs here,” said High. Although ITC loses an estimated 40 to 50 people each year through retirement and attrition, most job openings are quickly filled.

Constant Refresh

For Harris County, reclassification wasn’t a one-time thing. Every year, when ITC gets a new compensation analysis, it looks at the midpoint numbers to determine if they increased or decreased, and review the job titles that were cut and those that were created so leaders understand where the tech sector in the region is headed and how Harris County needs to adjust its own offerings to keep pace. “We are constantly looking at and refreshing our titles and compensation,” High said.

Because the reclassification process takes so long in California, the state is seeking opportunities to write new job classifications and descriptions with the future in mind, instead of focusing solely on immediate needs, according to Inderbitzen.

The rapidly evolving skills required of IT employees necessitates such forward thinking. “CIOs are trying to be innovative and they’re trying to do what they can,” said NASCIO’s Ward. The key is to continue evolving to ensure that government has the most effective IT workforce possible. “Be flexible, be adaptable, really push to get the best and most qualified talent,” she said. State CIOs, just like everyone else in the workforce, have to be ready to adapt to the different changes.”

Heather Kerrigan is the author of GOVERNING's Public Workforce newsletter. Prior to joining GOVERNING in 2006, she worked in the Office of Congressman Ron Kind of Wisconsin.