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Government Finds New Ways to Develop and Retain Talent

Private-sector salaries and benefits often lure potential public employees away from state and local IT jobs. Here’s how government recruiters are reaching and keeping a new generation of tech talent.

by / March 2020
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With ongoing workforce shortages in the technology sector, much has been said about the need for government to get more creative in its IT recruiting efforts. But there’s a second half of the equation that often gets overlooked. As recruiting gets ever more competitive, there’s a growing need for enhanced IT resiliency.

CIOs need to look at workforce planning for the long term. It’s no longer enough for IT to just “keep the lights on,” maintaining a functional and secure infrastructure. In a successful IT team, skilled professionals need defined pathways, continuous training opportunities and a sense that government offers them a place to build a career within a positive work culture.

In a sense, demographic changes work in favor of state and local efforts to promote IT longevity. For a generation of workers who saw their parents’ work lives disrupted by the recession, a long-term career in government may look tempting. “In government agencies, you don’t get fired easily. They also have defined benefits: You have a timeline to retirement, you have safety over time,” said David K. Johnson, a Forrester principal analyst serving chief information officers. “Two big sources of uncertainty are wiped off the table.”

In order to leverage that advantage, government CIOs need to work hand-in-glove with human resource professionals. They must emphasize ongoing training and build a strong workplace culture. They also need to meet emerging demands for a flexible workplace. And then there’s the money: When corporate dollars lure top talent away, government has to raise the stakes, without busting the budget.

All this may sound like a tall order, but workforce resiliency is an IT imperative. With state and local government spending more than $107 billion a year on technology according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, a stable workforce is a must-have, and it starts with a solid relationship between IT and HR. 

Partners in resilience

In Fulton County, Ga., the top HR executive considers himself a lead partner in promoting IT resilience.

“We try to have conversations on a monthly basis to figure out what their needs are,” said Kenneth L. Hermon Jr., chief human resources officer. “When we hear that they are losing a database administrator to Dekalb County for $2,000, HR can scour all our counterparts and develop a retention policy. Then if we hear an employee is leaving for another entity, IT has the ability to counter that offer.”

When such relationships don’t emerge organically, experts say the burden falls to IT leadership to initiate stronger ties. “It’s the role of the CIO to build a more proactive and consistent relationship with HR, so that they fully understand the challenges that IT is facing,” said Gartner analyst Alia Mendonsa. When the two are working in sync, a powerful synergy can occur. IT can provide HR with modernized management tools, “and HR in turn can provide key market information to help make compensation packages more competitive.”

When IT and HR are teaming effectively, one of the first areas they will likely address is training — a key component in the overall formula for IT resilience. 

Training up

Because IT is a moving target, most technology professionals rank ongoing training among their top professional concerns. Some 63 percent of government entities devote funds to employee development, according to the Center for State and Local Government Excellence (SLGE) 2019 workforce survey.

On the flip side, a lack of skills enhancement will undermine team longevity. “When government employees are frustrated, it’s because they don’t have the basic tools they need to do their job,” Johnson said.

In Cabarrus County, N.C., CIO Todd Shanley offers a range of online training opportunities, and he backs up those classes with a comprehensive training plan developed in collaboration with supervisors and staff members. “What does the county need, what are you interested in? Then we build the plan around the places where those come together,” he said.

Hermon said that Fulton County has been focused more acutely on employee development lately, specifically as a part of its IT employee retention efforts. “You might have been here for five or 10 years, and we’ve never sent you to a formal certification program or a training program,” he said. “It was obvious to us that employees were clamoring for those kinds of things. They wanted us to show that we believe in them and that we would invest in them.”

In Tennessee, Chief Learning Officer Antonio Meeks oversees a four-tier certificate program, a pyramid of learning that includes both nontechnical and technical skills. For IT professionals, “it is a strategic methodology for developing employees and ensuring they can be successful in their roles,” he said.

People aren’t required to follow the path, but for those seeking advancement within the department, it helps to have a well-defined avenue for training opportunities. “It’s a way of letting employees know that you are invested in them, you are invested in their growth and invested in their development,” Meeks said. “We know that 90 percent of millennials think learning and development opportunities are a reason to stick with an organization, so this is a driver for retention.”

He noted that while practical skills factor high on the state’s training regimen, IT leaders also need to put a heavy emphasis on the soft side. “We are shoring up their people skills: working with others, team building,” he said. “There’s nothing worse than having to go to the ‘mean IT person’ in order to get things done, or the IT person who makes you feel like you are dumb for asking the question.”

In addition to training and certification, HR and IT have another area of common interest: They can work collaboratively on job classifications in order to ensure the right people are in the right places, and are receiving appropriate compensation.

“The duties for a person in technology can change pretty frequently, and we need to refresh those duties so that when we look at the market, the job description truly aligns with the work that person is performing,” Shanley said.

In addition to ensuring accurate salaries, job reclassification can be used as a means to hang on to rising talent. “We grew someone off our help desk to support our physical security systems,” Shanley said. “We saw what he was interested in, and were able to pull him in that direction. To retain that individual long term, we reclassified a position in order to give him those additional responsibilities.”

This kind of strategic use around job classification can be a boon to long-term personnel management.

“When people have a sense that they are working outside their classification, they can get frustrated if they feel like they are being asked to do things that were never part of the job description,” said Gerald Young, senior research associate at the Center for State and Local Government Excellence. “If you can reclassify a position and bring it up to date, there can be recognition and perhaps even compensation for those additional tasks.”

These specific areas of overlap between HR and IT, areas such as training and job classification, can also be seen in a broader context. They are part of the cultural fabric of the institution. That fabric — not just what we do, but who we are and how we work — forms the backbone of any IT resiliency effort. In order for people to stay around long term, they need to feel personally invested in the enterprise.

To that end, it’s worth taking a deeper look at the ways in which that culture gets communicated. The ins and outs of employee engagement are another key element in the overall retention effort. 

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Getting engaged

For Joe Cudby, engagement begins with the work itself.

“The language I use with my team is ‘play,’” said Cudby, Indiana’s chief technology officer. “When you can find something that is really interesting and engaging, then you can deal with the other things — a challenging culture or lower compensation. If the work is engaging and you can see the impact of what you do, that can compensate for a lot.”

He says the best way to foster that sense of engagement is to give people choices in their work. He’ll define the big job, the major task at hand, and then invite his team members to carve out for themselves the bits that seem most interesting. “When I give people the opportunity to have some selection in what they would do, they tend to be more engaged in it,” he said.

Across state and local government, the most successful employee engagement efforts are those that start with the employees themselves. Rather than pushing information from the top down, successful agencies invite workers to take the lead.

“This is a participatory model, one that listens and encourages ideas to be explored and implemented,” Young said. “Those employees are more likely to feel valued within the organization.”

This approach goes beyond empowering employees to try out new approaches or take on new tasks. “It’s about letting them voice their ideas and concerns, their satisfactions and dissatisfactions along the way,” Young said. “You need an organizational culture that can hear from them and grow as a result.”

In Fulton County, Ga., Hermon makes that tangible with an employee engagement survey, conducted annually for each of the past four years. He’s not alone: 29 percent of respondents in the SLGE report said they use such tools.

Hermon said the key to success is not just listening, but also acting on what he hears. “We try to fix the things that can be fixed quickly and we put plans in place to tackle the others,” he said. Responsiveness in turn drives engagement: People feel empowered when those above respond to their concerns.

“It’s about developing trust between myself and the IT people,” Hermon said. “We also have chat sessions where we invite employees from the IT department, with no managers in the room, so that they can speak freely and can tell us what is on their minds.”

Others look to drive engagement through transparency. When people have a solid understanding of what’s going on across the IT shop, the theory goes, they are more likely to be personally invested in the outcomes.

In Cabarrus County, for example, Shanley uses wellness dashboards to track the progress of a wide range of projects. “When people have a better understanding of what is going on in the entire environment, it improves the mood across the entire department,” he said.

The bottom line

State and local IT leaders can listen thoughtfully and create a supportive culture. They can offer training and partner with HR to shape career paths. But let’s get down to brass tacks: Can they let you work from home, or pay you more? These are arguably harder questions, but some are finding practical answers.

“We have a good cross-section of IT people who telecommute,” Hermon said. “But we’ve learned from the mistakes of industry. We set a maximum of three straight days of telecommuting, so you still get that level of accountability and those interactions with colleagues.”

Cudby has been working from home for years and he encourages his staff to do the same. But he admits it is a balancing act. “When it’s all in the cloud and nothing’s on prem, I don’t need you to be physically here to do your work,” he said. “But we need to teach managers new ideas about accountability — how to work in that kind of environment and how to manage in that kind of environment.”

Striking that balance is critical to long-term success. While just 56 percent of government workers say their pay is competitive, 88 percent say their benefits are on par with industry, Young said. Flexible work, including work-from-home and flexible scheduling, helps to drive that stat.

Money can be trickier — there’s only so much — but some have found creative ways to close the gap. For example, some 40 percent of state and local entities encourage retention with merit-based salary increases, according to the SLGE survey.

Fulton County has implemented raises of up to 3 percent every three years based on departmental performance. “We wanted to incentivize the entire workforce to work as a team, so every department had to tie their specific goals to the county’s broader goals,” Hermon said. “The compensation piece is important. Our salaries will never be private-sector levels, but we need them to be competitive.”

In Cabarrus County, HR conducts a salary survey every two years and adjusts pay rates accordingly. In Tennessee, the average employee salary has gone up $5,000 over the past five years. “We are really working on that, including looking at IT and reclassifying positions, which has led to salary increases,” Meeks said.

Money fixes a lot of things, but it’s not the only factor on the table. Even when salaries are stuck, there is much that IT leaders can do to position state and local government as an employer of choice.

“Government is constrained financially, but pay is only one dimension of satisfaction,” Johnson said. “You can provide training and growth opportunities that people couldn’t get in the private sector. You can give them the chance to build their skills and to find something meaningful in their work.”

All that together can add up to an IT team that is resilient over the long haul.

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Adam Stone Contributing Writer

A seasoned journalist with 20+ years' experience, Adam Stone covers education, technology, government and the military, along with diverse other topics. His work has appeared in dozens of general and niche publications nationwide. 

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