CIOs struggle to attract young IT workforce

New hiring initiatives and flexible management are expected to help

The federal government needs a youth movement in its information technology workforce. Chief information officers say they are having a tough time recruiting new IT workers, despite a surging demand in government for specialists in IT and IT security.

“We do have a shortage of IT personnel out there,” said Barry West, the Commerce Department’s CIO.

CIO Council research has found that the average federal IT worker is 51 to 55 years old, works at a General Schedule 12 pay grade and has 20 years of federal work experience. Those demographic statistics show that the government IT workforce will be hit hard by a retirement wave between 2008 and 2010, officials say.

A recent International Information Systems Security Certification Consortium report revealed that agencies are beginning to spend more of their IT security budgets on employees rather than technology. Agencies now spend on average 46 percent of their security budgets on people, the study states.

“For every two [employees] we lose, we hire one,” said E. Glenn Rogers, deputy CIO at the Department of Health and Human Services. In the interest of getting the job done, Rogers said, HHS tends to hire more senior full-time employees, choosing job experience over younger hires.

IT workforce assessment
At the recent FOSE trade show in Washington, D.C., a panel of CIOs discussed the barriers to hiring and retaining new IT workers and pondered ways to overcome gaps as older workers to retire during the next few years.

Janet Barnes, the Office of Personnel Management’s CIO and co-chairwoman of the CIO Council’s IT workforce committee, outlined four critical areas that managers need to address to bolster their IT workforce. Those areas are workforce planning, which helps identify skill gaps; shifting talented project managers to the highest profile projects; robust training and development; and competitive compensation programs to attract and retain workers.

Barnes said the CIO Council offers a governmentwide IT workforce-assessment tool, which is an anonymous, voluntary survey that measures the basic skills and competencies of federal IT workers.

“It is not only useful to get this very broad perspective in terms of our skills and competencies, it is useful for each agency to blend specific strategies to deal with any gaps they have,” Barnes said.

The panel also cited flexible, alternative work arrangements, such as telework, as good ways to encourage new hiring and curb turnover. West pointed to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s successful telework and hoteling program. Initially a method to counter high real estate costs, remote working has become an alternative for 500 patent examiners, a number that the office plans to expand in the next year.

“It takes some time to set up,” Barnes said. “On one hand, you want to attract and retain people. On the other, you’re responsible for what happens.”

Barnes said OPM has made headway with an initiative to support alternative career patterns and working hours as a recruiting method. Introduced in June 2006, the program encourages agencies to let talented people dip into federal work on a temporary, rotating basis or create flexible remote work programs. For instance, couples with young children could split their time between home and office, Barnes said.

Such work arrangements will no doubt help attract young IT specialists. But many workforce experts say the biggest selling point for government service is having rewarding work.

“It’s really not about the pay,” said West, former CIO at the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the National Weather Service. “It’s about the challenge and the exciting opportunities.”
Lawmakers push for public-service schoolCongress is keen on increasing the number of young government employees. On March 22, a bipartisan group of lawmakers offered bills in the Senate and House to create a public-service academy that would provide a free education to talented students in exchange for government
service.

The bills’ sponsors were Sens. Arlen Spector (R-Pa.) and  Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), along with Reps. Jim Moran (D-Va.) and Chris Shays (R-Conn.). If passed, the legislation would create a 5,000-student undergraduate school, funded at $205 million a year.

Candidates would need nominations from members of Congress and would have opportunities to study abroad and participate in internships with nonprofit and military organizations. After graduating, students would have to work for federal, state or local government for at least five years.
                                                                                    — Wade-Hahn Chan

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