Hiring Help

In their search for young workers, IT departments are seeking ways to make technology jobs look more like a day at a Play Station.
June 1, 2007
Ellen Perlman
By Ellen Perlman  |  Former columnist
Ellen Perlman was a GOVERNING staff writer and technology columnist.

When schoolchildren were asked to draw pictures of an IT person, here's what a lot of them came up with: a bald guy in horn-rimmed glasses wearing a white lab coat, complete with pocket protector. Only one child drew a woman.

That was a decade ago. Today, Dan Ross, Missouri's chief information officer, says not much has changed, except that the nerds now carry laptops and iPods in the pictures.

And therein lies a huge hiring problem. Like most government agencies, IT departments need to replenish their staffs. Turnover is high and large numbers of employees are eligible for retirement. Recruiters want to hire at least some young people, but twenty-somethings can't be lured to a job with promises of ample sick leave and generous retirement plans. An additional problem for IT recruiters is that they compete against the private sector in a tight market where new entrants are limited. Recent graduates are not choosing public tech careers in large numbers -- even though they are technologically talented in the ways of laptops, BlackBerrys and cell phones.

Then there's this hurdle. A Pew Research Center survey, released in January, found that 81 percent of the 18- to 25-year-olds they contacted said that getting rich is their generation's top or second-most important goal. Fifty-one percent said the same about being famous. Ever heard of a government IT job that ranks high on wealth or celebrity?

IT departments are going to have to find unusual ways to entice younger generations to their ranks. Memo to IT managers: It's not going to be by offering them jobs working on 30-year-old mainframes. Or developing systems using COBOL, the ancient programming language used in the "legacy" computer systems governments have been stuck with for decades. These are young adults who grew up at "twitch speed," playing computer and video games, zapping off instant messages, watching advanced animation and experiencing high-speed digital imagery in their daily lives.

To reduce the stodgy factor, the Oklahoma Office of State Finance has been emphasizing its "cool" technologies. Recruiters have had some luck attracting young people to jobs that involve newer technologies, such as open systems, cybersecurity and advanced network technologies.

There are other solutions out there. Washington State IT promotes the excitement of quick-changing venues. IT workers can go from developing a financial application to working on the technological underpinnings of environmental policy to helping out with the IT demands of natural resources or public safety departments.

Missouri's Ross is going a step further. He has been working on a recruitment strategy that includes explosions, car chases, baseball games and money. An inspiration for one of his ideas was a video produced by the U.S. Army that shows a giant explosion and works backwards from there to explain the expertise that was required to create it. He figures Missouri can do the same with a highway chase, giving details about the work that highway patrolmen do and what IT employees contribute to nabbing criminals. He's hoping to come up with a stylized video he can pass out at schools and job fairs.

He also wants to hit kids at an early age, well before the college years. He's going for the hearts and minds of middle-school students. Few school counselors promote government IT jobs because they're not that knowledgeable about them. So the state is taking on the job of planting the IT seed in young students. "We load them on a bus, feed them and show them what IT is about," Ross says. Missouri takes young visitors to see what the state data center is like and what the hands-on technical people do. Every box in the data center is labeled to explain its purpose. Another visit is to mission control at the highway department, where technology is focused on intersections in the major cities. "It looks like a spaceship," Ross says.

He's conscious that younger IT workers glom onto speedy technologies and want to have fun with them. So the newest, fastest PCs no longer go to Ross or other high-level IT officials whose daily work is not computer intensive. Instead, they go to the workstations of the young technologists for whom speed makes a big difference. And the IT department tries to plan social events, such as baseball game outings. The IT department took about 500 government IT people and vendors who work with the state to a Cardinals game recently so they could get to know one another better and perhaps learn from one another -- despite the risk of a state IT employee "getting stolen" by a private company.

One other piece in the works is a marketing campaign to improve the image of "computer nerds." Its major focus, says Ross, will be that "it's cool to be smart.

Ellen Perlman
Ellen Perlman | Former columnist | mailbox@governing.com