Cures for the workforce blues

With an assist from the state of Texas, Lynn Moore has begun building a second career in information technology.

A former dental hygienist and recent business administration graduate from the University of Phoenix, Moore has been able to take advantage of the newly created Texas Information Technology Academy ( to quickly acquire technology skills and a systems analyst position with the state's Comptroller of Public Accounts office.

Moore is one of 29 students to graduate in October 2000 as part of the first class of the Texas IT Academy, a pilot project launched by the state's office of the comptroller early last year. The academy is a private/public-sector initiative providing an intensive 14-week training program and entry-level jobs to non-IT professionals in the state. In return, the trainees are required to work for the state for two years.

The rationale for the program is straightforward, said Billy Hamilton, the state's deputy comptroller. The state is having a huge problem retaining IT people, with state agencies losing six out of 10 IT specialists to private industry over the past few years, added Hamilton, an early driving force behind the academy.

Texas is not alone. "Government organizations are really struggling," said Jim Ballard, senior director of sales consulting at Oracle Corp. in Austin. State IT managers throughout the United States all have the same problem, Ballard said: "How to find and attract IT staffers when the private sector can offer so much more in the way of better compensation, better access to technology and stock options."

Ballard helped organize the Texas IT Academy and taught classes on e-business tools and server technology.

A few statistics underscore the problem. The first and most obvious is an unemployment rate of around 3 percent, "so the bottom line is there is just a shortage of available people," said Keira Blazer, director of recruiting at KPMG Consulting LLC, McLean, Va.

As far as the IT market is concerned, technology changes so quickly that there can never be enough people trained in any particular skill set, Blazer said.

In Texas, the IT job vacancy rate is about 10 percent, or about 900 workers, said Carolyn Purcell, executive director of the Texas Department of Information Resources.

Critical obstacles to filling those positions are the public-sector image and the bottom line. "IT professionals seek out jobs that challenge and are kind of bleeding edge — they want to be where the action is," Purcell said.

Pay is another barrier, she said.

Over the past year, Texas has raised its wage caps for many IT specialists from about $55,000 to about $70,000, according to the comptroller's office. Those increases have helped retain employees, Purcell said.

Texas officials realize those increases still fall short of what industry can pay for skilled workers.

The NASIRE study pegged the average national wage for a database manager in all sectors at $68,168, for example. The average wage for those workers in financial organizations — one of the highest paying sectors — is nearly $100,000.

To make up for the skills shortage, Texas spends about 30 percent of its $1.4 billion IT budget on outsourcing.

The academy will not replace outsourcing, Hamilton stressed, noting that the program will not produce personnel as skilled as a high-level Unix worker. "Even if you outsourced everything, you still need people who understand the link between technology and the business process," he said.

The idea for the IT academy grew out of encounters with employees who had been arts majors but ended up performing IT tasks, such as installing networks. "What we found from talking to these people is that a lot of them would like to get into IT, but they have no idea how to get their feet wet," Hamilton said.

In about September 1999, Hamilton put together a PowerPoint presentation outlining the IT academy proj-ect and presented it to agency IT groups, he said.

He found a receptive audience.

By the end of the year, the comptroller's office put together a public/private advisory committee with participation from 73 organizations, including state agencies, universities and technology companies, such as Oracle, Cisco Systems Inc. and KPMG Consulting. (A full list can be found at the Texas IT Academy Web site.) Providing their services without cost, companies used the project as a way to generate good will with Texas, a big IT customer, officials said.

The Building Blocks

Key components of the initiative included paying candidates entry-level salaries while they trained and requiring them to work for the state for two years after classes ended. The salary requirement was intended to induce candidates outside the Austin area to come to the capital to train and work, while the work requirement ensured that agencies would gain some benefit from the program.

Rare in government, the work requirement is commonplace in the private sector among companies such as KPMG, Blazer said. KPMG usually requires a year's employment of em-ployees it trains, she added, warning that Texas' two-year pledge may scare away some young college graduates. A number of subcommittees were set up to devise the curriculum and candidate screening methods.

Agencies, responding to surveys, indicated that networking skills were a priority, Hamilton said. They also expressed a need for e-business applications skills. "There is a big push in this state, as [in] others, to get on the Web," he said.

The curriculum ended up being broad, including fundamental computer classes taught by state em-ployees and Texas State Technical College faculty, and industry-led classes in areas such as program management, networking and database management design administration.

In March, the state started seeking applications. Texas Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander took the lead, announcing the new program in speeches around the state. Press releases were also issued, prompting newspaper articles throughout Texas, Hamilton said.

The program received 930 applications, well above the couple of hundred that were expected, he said.

Moore's interest was sparked by an article in the local newspaper of Hamilton, Texas. She sent her application in April.

Along with all the others, that application was judged on a number of criteria, including education and IT experience and aptitude, Hamilton said. "For example, you could get extra points if you used to do some computer work for your church or something like that," he said, adding that applicants were also given an online IT aptitude rating.

The top 100 candidates were then interviewed by telephone.

The agencies considered all the information and whittled down the list to find the lucky 30.

Moore got her acceptance at the end of July, shortly before classes began in early August. The class work provided a "quick introduction to build up their muscles fast," Ballard said. "It was pretty rigorous with students sitting there Monday through Friday just getting their heads packed with information," he said, noting that there were weekly tests to ensure that they were retaining the information.

Students were given laptop computers to use in class and were also allowed to detach them from the docking station and take them home so they could work at night, Moore said. Students also were given access to a few online tutorial sites.

Twenty-nine of the 30 students graduated in October. One was forced to drop out for personal reasons, Moore said. All were placed in entry-level jobs at different agencies with Moore becoming a systems analyst with the IT division of the comptroller's office.

The comptroller is now tallying the cost of the first class and planning for a second to begin next year. Hamilton estimated that the class cost $125,000 to $150,000.

All of the funds were scraped together from contributions from the different agencies involved in the project. However, the group is preparing to ask the state legislature for $200,000 to $250,000 a year to fund a slightly expanded version of the academy, Hamilton said. He said he was optimistic, especially because the first class seems to have been a success.

Moore seconds that observation. "It definitely gave us an edge and got our feet inside the door," she said.

As for the future, she said, "I am definitely looking forward to working in the comptroller's office for the next two years, and after that I'll assess what I'll do at that time."

McKenna is a freelance writer based in the San Francisco Bay area.


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