Pondering the future of tech talent in government

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

The problem is that techies working in hot fields — developing smart-phone apps, for example — demand pay and perks beyond the range of the General Schedule system.

That raises a difficult question for agencies: Are they better off not trying to compete for top talent, at least in the early stages of technology, and instead simply hiring more contractors?

Here’s what Federal Computer Week readers had to say when we put the question to them in a recent "FCW Insider" blog post. Comments have been edited for length, clarity and style.

Check the expiration date
To remain a "top talent," an IT worker has to constantly be upgrading her skills. My experience is that the government does little to help its IT workers maintain top-notch current and relevant skills. Top talent does not want their skills to atrophy, so they are far more inclined to work for an employer that encourages and assists in keeping skills current.
— Steve

Say what? (Part 1)
A former head of the organization (not the whole department) once indicated that he did not want any technical people on his federal workforce. It is a shame that was the CIO. I have wanted to be a fed for a long time but not with these organizations that only want the politicians, the game players, the back stabbers, the power hungry, the typical movers and shakers of bankrupt businesses.
— SOTE Contractor

To each his own
The biggest advantages the government gets from contracting are innovation and flexibility. Innovation in that government can review the approach and technologies of the companies competing and leverage all of that knowledge with their internal knowledge. Flexibility in that if the government is not happy with results, they can stop a contract now and drop the company and its employees, ending the outflow of money. One high-level government person told me that the government would be better off to focus on program management and related control and administration, and contract much of the technical expertise.
— Fair Comparison

Managing the unknown
If you don't have technical expertise in-house, you have great difficulty managing technical programs. How can you respond to a contractor's quote for a project if you don't have anyone in-house who can tell you if that's a reasonable cost estimate?
— Erich Darr

Say what? (Part 2)
Being a contractor, it's odd for me to say this, but bringing in more contractors is totally the wrong thing to do. They cost twice as much as a government employee, they generally are beholden to their company first, and the customer is generally an afterthought. The government needs to get serious about attracting talent and paying for it. A three-year salary cap is only going to make the problem worse and will only drive up costs by forcing the government to outsource more IT.
— Anonymous

About the Author

John Monroe is Senior Events Editor for the 1105 Public Sector Media Group, where he is responsible for overseeing the development of content for print and online content, as well as events. John has more than 20 years of experience covering the information technology field. Most recently he served as Editor-in-Chief of Federal Computer Week. Previously, he served as editor of three sister publications: civic.com, which covered the state and local government IT market, Government Health IT, and Defense Systems.

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Reader comments

Tue, May 24, 2011 No Future

"Pondering the future of tech talent in government?"

There is no future for tech talent in the Federal Government. If you are a talented IT person, avoid Federal employment like the plague.

Mon, May 23, 2011 Judas Goat

The Federal Government has long had problems recruiting skilled IT workers. This situation is not going to get better any time soon. We have one of the two major political parties that is openly hostile towards the civilian workforce. The other party may not be so openly hostile, but they have proven themselves more than willing to stab the federal worker in the back when they need to pretend to be fiscally responsible.

I know that if I was currently outside of the civil service thinking about coming in, I'd probably decide to stay in the private sector. As it is I'm only staying long enough to collect my pension. If Congress would offer a VERA I think I'd be the first in line to leave.

Mon, May 23, 2011 sclark Brooklyn, NY

Civil Service at the Federal, State and local levels has struggled for years to attract and keep the top people and workers. With strict salary schedules and HR slow top provide flexibility (everybody starts at 1st WIG step), The primary way used to make CS jobs more appealing was to have benefit packages that sweetened the deal and offset the generally lower salaries and lower rates of increase (in good times or bad it is still a 3% raise while private sector can get profit sharing and other performance bonuses). Cutting or eliminating public sector benefits now will revert back to the times when the only people that would bother to work in the public sector were those who couldn't get a job in the private sector and/or are just good test takers. CS exams have always struggled to accurately measure technical or scientific expertise or predict success based on test scores. Watch.. in 5-6 years someone will raise the issue and a study will be commissioned to find out what they can do to attract the top people. (increase benefits rather than salaries ) ... round and around we go

Mon, May 23, 2011 Glad I got out when I did.

I had a Regional government CIO angerly say to an individual in a small group that were having dinner at a conferance with him that "IT Specialists" were "irreverent". I asked him if what I heard him say was correct. And he said yes but wouldn't explain. Of course he didn't realize that I was an IT specialist of twenty years with the government at that time. Since then I have left the OI&T job series and moved to another within the government, and got a grade increase to boot! Yes, they don't invest in training their IT staff as much as they should. The pay is not that great either, when compared to private industry.

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