IT wage gap does not compute

A friend mentioned recently that his son, a 25-year-old college graduate, had accepted a computing job with a high-tech company in the Southwest for an annual salary of $85,000.

One's first thought might be, "Sure beats what I made just out of school." And that thought could be followed by, "How can the government expect to compete in this environment?"

The answer is, "It can't."

That is the experience of the General Services Administration's Consumer Information Center, which recently attempted to hire entry-level computer specialists (GS-5 level) for $21,000 a year. After receiving more chuckles than applications, the center is appealing to Congress for funding to boost the proposed salaries to $51,000 annually. The center hopes this salary will attract some of the best and the brightest into the government information technology arena.

Even if Congress decides to give the center the extra funding it has requested, the $200,000 bandaid will do little to fix the larger problems that face the federal IT work force and, indeed, the federal work force as a whole. Below-market wages, outdated personnel rules and an almost nonexistent government marketing campaign seriously hamper the government's ability to attract top-notch IT workers to its ranks.

At the very least, the government needs to update its recruitment and hiring procedures. It must be innovative and proactive in reaching out to college graduates as it competes with the private-sector marketing machine that can hold job fairs on Florida beaches during spring break. The government also needs to take a hard look at its compensation and rewards system if it hopes to retain the workers it attracts.

Recent efforts by the Office of Personnel Management to lure back former federal workers to help solve the Year 2000 problem are an example of government at its most innovative.

Similar thinking needs to be applied to the challenges facing the federal IT work force as a whole before the shortage of qualified personnel begins to affect agencies' ability to perform their missions.

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