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Can agencies pay enough to attract top IT talent?

Guest entry by Federal Computer Week Editor John Monroe.

In the various debates about outsourcing, insourcing and federal pay, one issue almost always comes up: The tough competition for IT talent.

Although federal agencies have the advantage of doing some very cool projects, they still have a difficult time competing for up-and-coming IT workers, many readers say. The problem is that techies working in hot fields – developing enterprise smartphone apps, for example -- demand pay and perks outside the range of the General Schedule system.

“Our agency’s IT department is having to create non-supervisory 14s to hire system administrators because we can't compete with private industry in pay,” wrote an FCW reader who called himself or herself Fed Up. “In three years, we'd probably only be able to hire a system admin only if we open the position as an SES position.”

Those young Turks are more likely to end up working for a software vendor or systems integrator already working in the sweet spot of the IT industry, rather than a federal agency, the theory goes.

That was the case of an information security expert who had recently left the Defense Department after just two years on the job. At first, the reader was willing to accept the fact that former colleagues in the private sector were making a lot more money. But then rumors of a pay freeze began and that was too much.

“I really want to serve (I have 15 years of previous state and local government experience on top of my private sector experience), but I refuse to be a punching bag for the politicians while my family suffers,” IT Sec wrote. “Take note, new feds: Your elected officials don't care about you. If you can do better for yourself on the outside, go for it. I'm happy I did.”

If agencies cannot attract top talent, how does that affect their insourcing/outsourcing strategies? Should agencies simply cede the competition and spend more money on contractors any time new technology is involved? Or is that giving up too much control?

What do you think?

Posted on Apr 18, 2011 at 12:18 PM


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Reader comments

Thu, Apr 21, 2011 RayW

Back in the early '80s I had a choice - Gov for 15K and slow but steady pay raises but better leave and stability, or Industry for 25K with a chance for fast pay raises based on merit but less leave and stability.

After 18 years, four companies, and two layoffs, I had the opportunity to go Gov because there was a troubled project that could use the skills gained over the course of 18 years and four companies that were not available in the Gov. Since I was close to 50 and on still another politically motivated layoff at the end the 90's, I took the offer. I took a pay cut from my last job going in as a GS 12 step 10 where most engineers of 18 years were around step 4 on the average and got worse health insurance, but my eight years of military time gave me a big boost on annual leave.

So, not only did I bring a lot more experience to the job than my peers had in the Gov, but I was getting paid a LOT more than them.

My suggestion is like several others, get a job in Real Life where you get paid for working, not time in grade. Work hard, take the opportunity to learn, then in about 8-10 years look to see where the Gov is going and position yourself to gain the skill sets needed. Then decide if it is worth the effort to change. But be warned, real Life jobs have serious deadlines, potential layoffs, and slower max annual leave accrual, all for the chance to make a lot more money. While the Gov (unless you know someone or are going for a critical position) takes a long time to get hired, assuming your quota has not been filled (and yes, some of us are limited by a quota system). It all depends on where your priorities are. In my case it worked out due to the economic issues that resulted from the politics of the 90's and being an older laid off engineer and having a hot project that I fit into perfectly and a friend who got me in the back door. (And being in the Gov for NSPS helped a lot too since our base had honest upper management for pay pool management, unlike a lot of posters' stated experiences)

Wed, Apr 20, 2011 Erich Darr

With a starting salary in the low $40Ks for someone with a computer science degree depending on location, constantly hearing federal workers being bad mouthed and a multi-year pay freeze what do you think?

Tue, Apr 19, 2011 Philadelphia

Thats true that there are many people who know more than what others know but everywhere there is discrimination. The supervisor will prefer to be more lenient toward the employee whose father also was or is in the Fed and has or had a high position. The girl may not be knowing anything compared to another girl but just because she is a flirt and a superiors daughter they want that sort of a girl. The supervisors neglect people who are nice and hard working. They should not go on peoples looks but they should see what the person knows not listen to others who try to make him a fool so that he also can be demoted by his superiors as he did not do a good job.

Tue, Apr 19, 2011

At this stage of the game no. And for what they are willing to pay, new talent will go to the contracting side where they can atleast make enough money to eat more than cat food and sleep on a cot.

Tue, Apr 19, 2011 Earth

Can you say self fulfilling prophecy? The elected class makes the “better” part of the career class leave. The government works with less efficiency. The elected class uses that as an excuse to bad mouth the career class and attack it even more. The results for the citizen of this death spiral is nullification of services and the government. I think we need to require the elected class to pass tests on the subject matter they pass legislation on and be barred from the ballot if they can’t demonstrate scores higher than each and every career class person that would work under them.

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