The Public Sector Is Reeling in IT Talent

SAN MATEO (05/15/2000) - If you're managing an IT department at just about any company in the country, recruiting quality IT talent is probably your biggest headache. And it's not going away anytime soon. There are fewer computer science majors coming out of universities today than there were 10 years ago, and demand for fresh talent is still growing. Competition is tight, salaries can be absurdly high, and benefits that used to be special perks, such as stock options, are standard issue.

Now imagine that you're working in the public sector. Your problem just got a whole lot worse.

As nearly all public agencies and government have become savvy to the benefits of technology, their IT project lists have grown. And like their counterparts in the private sector, they need to hire top-notch programmers, engineers, and project managers who have skills in the latest technologies.

But government organizations -- particularly at the state and local level, where budgets and staffs are smaller -- are strapped by restrictions such as salary caps, an inability to offer stock options, and a reputation for lagging behind in technology innovation. These factors can add up to the least attractive opportunity an IT job candidate receives.

To overcome the growing shortage of IT workers, government agencies have gotten creative, and to stay competitive, private companies may just have to follow suit.

"This shortage of IT workers hits the state governments more so than the private sector," says Ed Janairo, training coordinator in the information technology group at the Council of State Governments, in Lexington, Kentucky.

"The base salary is typically lower, and there's the impression or stereotype out there that state governments [are] going to be using older systems that seems to deter a lot of candidates."

Uncovering obstacles

The public sector is investigating its recruiting difficulties. Last year, the Council of State Governments decided that the issue of IT recruiting was crucial, so it sent out a survey to the top IT managers in each state -- usually the state CIO or IT director -- to find out just how bad the situation was. A report due out in May will detail the findings of the survey.

"This is more of a preliminary report. It doesn't go so far as to identify best [recruiting] practices, but the point is to make clear the severity of the problem for state administrators," Janairo says.

But IT administrators in the public sector can't wait for the survey results to help them hire qualified people. Many are finding ways to attract the IT talent they need in their own creative ways: forming partnerships with the commercial sector, promoting the mission behind what they do, and even becoming marketers.

More than money

As has happened in technology centers such as the Silicon Valley, New York, Boston, and Austin, Texas, a number of Internet and telecommunications giants in the past decade have moved in to Northern Virginia's Fairfax County. PSINet Inc., Nextel Communications Inc., and MCI Worldcom Inc., as well as dozens of dot-com start-ups, call Fairfax home. Fairfax County has the added acclaim of being one of the more affluent counties in the country, according to Fairfax County CIO David Molchany.

That means Fairfax County must compete for IT talent with stock-option-slinging employers who offer luxury automobiles as signing bonuses. And though it's not New York or San Francisco, Fairfax is a costlier place to live than the surrounding counties are, and candidates expect salaries to reflect that difference.

So how does Fairfax County staff its projects? It engages in some good old-fashioned marketing, Molchany says.

"A year ago, we had over 29 vacancies [in IT departments]; today we have seven.

We're selling Fairfax as very flexible," Molchany says. "We're able to deal with flex time, job sharing, and basically any special need. And the fact that you're working for us [means] you probably aren't going to have to work on weekends, which is different from the private sector. And we don't require a lot of travel."

And it's not just what Fairfax is saying that's attracting good people. The county is also jazzing up its message to potential recruits.

"We've changed the way we recruit. Our Washington Post ads are now designed to attract attention. Before it was just the county seal and the job description.

Now we use borders [around the ads] and hot recruiting terms like 'Oracle,' " Molchany says.

Molchany's advice to those trying to hire IT talent is to first find out what other organizations around them are paying. Then they should focus on what differentiates their organization from others. In Molchany's case, the differentiators are the flexibility that Fairfax County can offer its employees and the opportunity they will have to get some training in hot technologies.

"We have some pretty modern programs. We're involved in 'e-government,' " Molchany says. "We've got a great Web site where you can pay taxes over the Web, we've got multimedia kiosks in 21 locations throughout the county, and we've got interactive voice-response systems."

Although Molchany doesn't necessarily want to sell his organization as a training ground to potential employees -- because that implies workers are learning then leaving -- he admits that it happens.

"I'm really interested in getting employees and retaining them, but it can be a great place [for new employees] to learn, too," Molchany says.

Befriending the competition

At the offices of the state government of Missouri, located in Jefferson City, competition for IT talent is tight, but for different reasons. The state of Missouri is the largest employer of technology talent in the Jefferson City area, and therefore a poaching target for any company coming into the region that needs IT staff, says state of Missouri CIO Mike Benzen.

The state government decided to join forces with the private sector to try to solve their common problem. In 1996, Missouri formed a coalition that included local private companies and universities. They jointly developed IT training programs that would help the schools supply greater numbers of qualified job candidates.

One advantage that the state government has is that many folks in rural areas are less likely to be lured by big-city salaries, Missouri's Benzen says.

"Many people in this area are here by choice, because they have family here or they grew up here. They're not as likely to be attracted by higher pay in Silicon Valley," Benzen says. "We figure if we can grow our own [IT talent], many of them will stay."

Yet Benzen admits that hiring a worker who has been through an IT training course or two often means settling for less talent than what he's looking for.

"We really want to get the 25-year veterans, but we can't always do that. We find that we're often taking our second choice or our third choice [candidate]," Benzen says.

Not locked in

The state of California's Department of Corrections, in Sacramento, loses a lot of its IT employees to the commercial sector. Private companies pay more, says Melinda Gibson, chief of applications development and maintenance with the department's information systems division. The department, which is responsible for the care of offenders who are in custody, currently loses 15 percent of its 150-person IT staff each year.

One reason is that new recruits simply don't stay long.

"We're a training ground. So the state of California and the taxpayers lose," Gibson says. "We really can't compete [with the private sector]. Most of us in civil service believe that public service is the right thing for us."

For those who stay on at the Department of Corrections, money isn't a top priority. Those IT professionals stay because they believe their work is making a difference.

"I have had staff who have always wanted to work here because they really believe in the mission of the department," Gibson says. "It kind of surprised me, but it makes sense as well. We all need to feel like we're contributing to society in a positive way."

That's a selling point that the department promotes when it attends job fairs and conferences, Gibson adds.

Facing market realities

Despite these approaches, governmental departments across the board need to raise the salaries of IT workers, says Jerry Mechling, director of Strategic Computing and Telecommunications in the Public Sector at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

"It's been a general problem for the government to find and hire any specialty that becomes hot in the market," Mechling says. "And if you're first in your field, you can make a lot more money being outside [of the government] than inside. It's true for doctors, lawyers, in addition to IT."

But government agencies need to face the realities of competing with the commercial sector for IT, because the challenge isn't going away anytime soon.

"While it's a long-term and bloody undertaking, convincing civil-servant structures to keep closer to market salaries is very worthwhile. You can't have a huge [salary] gap for a long period of time and not have it hurt you," Mechling says.

Fairfax's Molchany says that although he still isn't paying his workers on par with commercial companies he's getting close. Salaries were raised by an average of 5 percent last year. He has committed to keep within range of private sector salaries by doing surveys on an annual basis.

"We have to be competitive with the marketplace. We have to keep an eye on what other people are paying, and we will do market studies yearly because we have to be as conscientious as we can," Molchany says.

Molchany has a group of advisors called the Information Technology Policy Advisory Council, made up of business executives from the community, that supports the idea of salary surveys.

One alternative to recruiting is farming out projects overseas, which can be a hot button issue when spending taxpayers' dollars.

"We are seeing a [staffing] shortage situation where a lot of the work is going offshore; the rates are attractive and it's decent quality," Benzen says. "It's not popular to send taxpayer's money overseas, but as a last resort, if it was that or [the project] wouldn't get done, we'd do it."

There are lessons to be learned from the creative approaches that state and local governments are taking to recruiting. Forming partnerships with other employers in the area to tackle the problem can produce results, as can selling what's unique about one's company, such as a high level of workplace flexibility or a compelling mission.

The public sector is proving that sane hours, and not pie-in-the-sky stock options, can be attractive to highly qualified job applicants. But Kennedy School's Mechling warns that private companies should also be realistic when borrowing ideas from government recruitment practices.

"You can't lie and say [to a recruit], 'You'll only have to work 40 hours a week' when really you're going to whip them for 65," Mechling says.

Cara Cunnigham (cara_cunningham@yahoo.com) is a free-lance writer and a former InfoWorld news editor based in Washington.

Partnerships that pay off

If you get to know the other employers competing for IT talent in your region, they're less likely to poach from your ranks.

That's what Jan Grecian, deputy CIO of the state of Missouri, found after participating in a joint public and private effort to solve the shortage of skilled IT professionals in Jefferson City, Missouri.

Grecian spent time with executives from area companies to talk about using training programs to expand the pool of available IT personnel, rather than fighting for them.

"We'd been competing with the other folks in town [for IT staff] and we needed to cut it out, if you will," Grecian says.

In 1996, the State of Missouri got together with other Jefferson City employers, including local banks and GTE, and with local colleges and universities to create the Jefferson City Information Technology Coalition.

Now comprised of 20 employers and nine colleges and universities, this coalition is designed to boost local IT talent in two ways: by encouraging adults who might be interested in changing careers to go back to school and get training in information technology, and by raising awareness among college students about IT careers.

This is not a quick fix, Grecian says. Coalition members must be willing to invest some time and effort into the process. The coalition requires that those involved donate their time to help develop technology curricula, speak to classrooms, and help with career fairs. And the results aren't immediate, either.

"It's a long-term approach, because it takes a while for [the students] to come out of the pipeline," she says.

But even though such programs may require a lot of time, they don't require a lot of money, Grecian adds.

"One thing that's really important to know is that you don't need big money or grants to get the initiative started. This was a grassroots effort, and it's amazing what's been accomplished," Grecian says.

Although Grecian says that she knows anecdotally that the state of Missouri has hired some graduates from these programs, no one has yet pulled together hard statistics that show how the local government and private businesses have gained from the coalition.

Nonetheless, she's confident that the program has boosted the level of IT job candidates and has helped build relationships with private sector employers in the area.

"When you're all sitting across a table from each other once a month, trying to solve the same problem, you're less likely to try and raid one another's shops," Grecian says.

More information about the Jefferson City Information Technology Coalition can be found at www.jcitc.org.

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