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Government Needs to Rethink How They Attract IT Talent

Most agencies can’t match private-sector pay, and governments can no longer depend on superior benefits packages as a recruiting tool.

Wikimedia Commons/Marko Puusaar
The tech sector’s recovery from the Great Recession is good news everywhere but within government IT departments. When the economy tanked, one of the few bright spots was a surge in the number of skilled technology workers applying for public-sector jobs. But with private companies hiring again, governments are struggling to compete for IT talent.

To make matters worse, a good chunk of the public-sector IT workforce is poised to leave. The sour economy delayed the long-predicted baby boomer retirement wave, but it’s still coming. Many state and local IT departments will see a quarter to a third of their employees become eligible for retirement in the next few years—the ratio is as much as half in some places. Financial uncertainty that kept these workers on the job over the past few years is easing, and changes to pensions may help push them out the door (see “The Chatter Effect,” page 58).

Once they’re gone, they won’t be easy to replace. Austin, Texas, CIO Stephen Elkins recently told Government Technology (Governing’s sister publication) that it takes the city an average of 240 days to fill an open technology position. The story is similar in Boston, Nashville, Phoenix and San Antonio.

Luckily, agencies probably won’t need to replace retirees one-to-one. Software and systems that used to be created and maintained by teams of government employees now can be purchased as a service from commercial vendors. State and local CIOs are certainly moving to these services where they can.

Still, IT departments need some level of in-house expertise, both to run systems they can’t or won’t outsource and to keep contractors honest. They’ll also need to attract employees with new skill sets, such as data scientists to create insight from the mountains of information collected by public agencies and business analysts to figure out how technology can be used to make government programs work better.

Competing with private industry for these employees can be tough. Most agencies can’t match private-sector pay, and governments can no longer depend on superior benefits packages as a recruiting tool. Generous pension and health-care packages are being retooled and vesting periods are being stretched to a decade or more—far longer than many young IT workers expect to spend at one job. In light of these realities, it is important to consider these questions as you remake your technology workforce:

Are you flexible? A growing number of jurisdictions have removed IT staff from the civil service system, giving agencies more leeway on pay and job classifications. Some CIOs contend that strict civil service employment rules simply are incompatible with modern IT staffing. The reality may not be quite so dramatic, but implementing merit-based employment certainly makes it easier to build the IT organization you need. Also, highly qualified IT professionals may not want to work full time. How friendly are your policies toward part-time or temporary workers? Do you allow telecommuting? Can your employees use their personal smartphones and other devices at work?

Are you interesting? Public agencies can’t match the cool factor of Silicon Valley tech giants. But you may be more interesting than you think. Government IT departments tend to be involved in major state- or community-wide projects, offering employees on-the-job experience that may take years longer to acquire in the commercial sector. Don’t be shy about publicizing major—and intriguing—initiatives. There may be a fair number of people who’ll spend a few years at your agency to build their résumé—just don’t expect them to spend a lifetime in government employment.

Are you connected? Some agencies are working closely with local colleges on internship programs that create a pipeline of new IT employees. Others are holding “hackathon” events that involve local software developers in solving government or community problems. These events can result in usable applications, but just as important, they can burnish your cool factor and introduce your agency to a creative and skilled group of potential employees. Another interesting tactic comes from the federal government. The Presidential Innovation Fellows program, launched in 2012, brings private-sector technologists to Washington, D.C., for six-month stints to work on government projects. Can you develop your own version?

How state and local IT agencies answer these questions could determine their success—especially as baby boomers leave the public workforce and new technology demands continue to pile up. 

Steve Towns is the former editor of Government Technology, and former executive editor for e.Republic LLC, publisher of GOVERNING, Government Technology, Public CIO and Emergency Management magazines. He has more than 20 years of writing and editing experience at newspapers and magazines, including more than 15 years of covering technology in the state and local government market. Steve now serves as the Deputy Chief Content Officer for e.Republic.
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