Finding IT candidates gets tougher

GAO careers

Officials at the Government Accountability Office are discovering what their counterparts at other federal agencies already knew: It's tough finding qualified information technology workers.

Hiring qualified candidates is competitive, even for GAO, which offers a two-year internship program, said Phyllis Hughes, GAO's director of recruiting and employment services. She spoke at a recent human resources conference in Cambridge, Md.

"Over the last couple of years, we have been feeling the competition," Hughes said. "We've had to offer bonus incentives" for IT workers.

Job openings are hard to fill, whether they are for a two-year internship program or a full-time position, because "it's heating up and we're in a technology competition right now," she said.

Qualified IT workers are hot commodities in both government and industry. In addition to IT knowledge, top candidates need to have analytical skills. "It is pretty difficult to find people with those kinds of skills," Hughes said.

As the exodus of experienced federal IT workers begins, agency executives are competing not only with industry but also with other agencies for the best workers.

Olga Grkavac, executive vice president of the IT Association of America's Enterprise Solutions Division, said the Washington, D.C., area has become the No. 1 location for technology-related jobs in the country, and industry and government officials are vying for a small pool of workers.

The competition will not ease, said Randy Michael, vice president of sales and recruiting at MindBank consulting group and co-chairman of the Industry Advisory Council's Human Capital Shared Interest Group.

"The market has changed dramatically in the last six months," Michael said. "What government can offer is security and benefits. But the government is not as secure as it once was."

Although government officials can offer benefits such as flexible work hours and telecommuting, salaries are often less than those offered by the private sector.

"We can bring people on board, but if they are not happy, we will have a retention problem," Hughes said.

To find the best candidates, Hughes said, GAO officials target colleges and job fairs. They offer the ability to apply for jobs online and preferences for veterans. The average IT recruit is about 26 years old, has an undergraduate degree and wants to work for a couple of years before getting a master's degree in public policy.

But John Mahan, director of business development for Prairie Quest Consulting in Fort Wayne, Ind., an IT solutions company, said the federal government should cast a wider net when searching for IT workers.

"In the Northern Virginia market, it is very competitive for the IT workforce," he said. "In Indiana's workforce, we're seeing a surplus of workers who don't even get a chance. The federal government should see Indiana as a resource. It should spread its net and locate resources outside the Washington, D.C., area."

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