Fed crisis: Luring IT workers

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Fed crisis: Luring IT workers The government will need 71,320 IT workers by 2006 -- this means replacing 32,315 retiring workers and adding 4,660 new IT employees to the base.

By Doug Brown, Inter@ctive Week UPDATED May 1, 2000 5:53 AM PT

If you think the private sector has it tough recruiting and keeping high-tech workers, then consider the federal government. Here's a behemoth of an organization trying to lumber its way into the fleet Internet economy with the guarantee of . . . lower pay. Stock options? You must be kidding. You want a quick vault up the career ladder? Good luck: The ladder rises so high in the heavens it's blocked by clouds, and you've got to climb it one rung at a time.

One thing is for sure: You'll plow through forests of mind-numbing contracts, regulations and other paperwork. Another good bet: You'll work in a decrepit building that is hard to cool in summer and tough to heat in winter, and where the bathrooms have the industrial feel of stadium johns.

And consider this: The heart of the federal government is nestled in the midst of one of the most expensive regions of the country, a high-tech job mecca where housing costs escalate monthly and competition over workers is already unusually fierce. Add to the mix high-paying private-sector jobs luring away longstanding federal information technology (IT) employees, and the situation is grim.

Rich Kellett, director of the General Services Administration's Emerging Information Technology Division, estimated that the federal government today is several tens of thousands of IT workers short of where it should be.

It will get worse.

The average age of the federal IT worker is 47, said Internal Revenue Service Chief Information Officer Paul Cosgrove at a recent luncheon during which a clutch of CIOs lamented the situation. Many of the government's IT workers are baby boomers who are on the cusp of retirement.

According to the Federal CIO Council, the U.S. government will need 71,320 IT workers by 2006. This will mean replacing 32,315 retiring workers and adding 4,660 new IT employees to the base.

"It's a crisis for all of the federal government," says George Molaski, chief information officer for the Department of Transportation. "I was just over at [the General Services Administration (GSA)], and they said they have as many people over 60 as under 30. More than 50 percent of the IT work force in [the Department of Treasury] are older than 50. One of the most critical things we need to do is revamp the civil service regulations to attract and compensate workers."

'A grim situation' Marjorie Bynum, vice president of work force development at the Information Technology Association of America, says the federal government is "facing a grim situation" in terms of its IT work force during the next decade. But it has started to move in the right direction, with incentives like hiring bonuses and scholarship funds.

Molaski says the Department of Transportation, for example, has committed to spending 2 percent of its payroll dollars on educating and training workers "to help them continue to build the skills that are necessary to run a federal department in the 21st century."

He says Transportation and other agencies are also studying ways to reimburse IT workers' student loans and pay for recent graduates' education in return for government service.

The State Department has been particularly innovative. Between 1993 and 1997, the department was under severe hiring constraints and maintained a 20 percent vacancy rate in its IT jobs. In 1998, it received authorization to fill the roughly 300 vacancies, but discovered how hard it was to attract IT workers in the roaring economy.

Last year, it began offering salary bonuses of 10 percent to 25 percent to new hires. It also began offering "retention allowances" -- or training money -- to workers with critical IT skills. Now, the department says it has several hundred candidates in the pipeline.

Mark Abramson, executive director of PricewaterhouseCooper's Endowment for the Business of Government, says that not only must the government restructure the way it rewards and challenges its employees, it must change the way it approaches employment in general.

"You might have to pay higher for some skills, but you don't have to bring people on forever," he says. "That's the old thinking. That's what slowed things up." He suggested a separate IT pay grade coupled with one- and two-year contracts for federal IT work as a way to keep the government up-to-speed in its IT needs.

Kellett, at the GSA, champions the Internet as a tool for offsetting what he describes as inevitable brain drain. But for the Net to work for the government, he says, it needs to hire a category of workers for which "there is no recognition in the federal government": MBAs.

"We need people to understand the business issues" of running a Web operation, says Kellett, who holds both an MBA and a law degree. "People in the federal government still don't understand the magnitude of the Web and the impact it's having."


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), May 01, 2000

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