Center finds IT workers are costly

When Congress returns from its August recess, officials at the Consumer Information Center (CIC) will be waiting anxiously to see if appropriators give them an extra $200,000 to hire computer specialists.

The center, which is part of the General Services Administration, distributes more than 200 federal consumer publications such as "Air Bags and On-Off Switches" from its Pueblo, Colo., office. It found out last year that its advertised $21,000-a-year computer specialist positions were grossly below the going market salary rate. The specialists would work on the center's World Wide Web site (located at www.pueblo.gsa.gov), where it posts catalogs, links to related sites, general information and consumer news.

"We figured we would hire computer specialists right out of college at a GS-5, which is about $21,000, but we found that no one was willing to accept that," said Teresa Nasis, the CIC's director. Indeed, with commercial companies dealing with the shortage of IT workers by offering bonuses and incentives often totaling more than $50,000 per year, the center's offer was laughed at by many potential candidates.

If Congress agrees to provide the extra $200,000, the center will be able to increase the computer specialist pay scale from a GS-5 to a GS-13, which would allow the center to increase the annual salary to more than $51,000. The increase in pay is included in the fiscal 1999 appropriations bill for the departments of Veterans Affairs, Housing and Urban Development and related agencies. The House and Senate have passed the bill, which is scheduled for conference. The House has included the $200,000 in its version of the bill, but the Senate has not.

The increase in pay will be a big change for the center, which is a relatively small office that employs more than 20 people, most of whom are graded GS-5 to GS-9, Nasis said. Some staff are at higher grades, but most positions require no more than a general knowledge of public relations and a communications degree.

The requirements for those positions worked for the center when it was distributing printed material. But when the center formed its Web site in 1996, it required computer specialists to maintain the site, Nasis said. "We added all of this stuff, and we then realized we needed computer specialists to help us with all this," she said.

In the past year, the Office of Personnel Management has been loosening guidelines for hiring IT personnel, particularly to encourage federal computer specialists to return to government to help fix federal computers for the Year 2000 problem. In June, OPM granted agencies the authority to pay up to 10 percent extra, or 25 percent with OPM approval, to a group of employees with specialized skills, such as computer programmers.

The new rule only gives authority, however. Where that extra money comes from is the agency's problem, according to OPM. And the CIC did not have that money.

The $200,000 from appropriations would solve the immediate need for money, but Nasis finds the lack of foresight in spending on IT salaries troubling. "I think it's very shortsighted of OPM not to have a special salary status for computer specialists like they have for secretaries," she said. "We really need to be more realistic about hiring computer specialists because the government is not competing in the market, and we're losing them to the private sector."

The CIO Council is addressing several issues surrounding the role of IT workers in the government, and one of those issues is that of pay, said an OPM spokesman, "but no recommendations [for a special salary status] have been made at this point."

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