Panel: Changes can lure IT labor

The federal government can attract much-needed information technology professionals by posting more job opportunities electronically and by offering tuition to students in exchange for a work commitment, according to preliminary recommendations by an interagency task force.

These and other recommendations were unveiled by members of the task force last week at the Virtual Government '99 conference in Washington, D.C. The group is seeking comments on its recommendations from federal employees and industry and will present its final recommendations to the CIO Council next month.

The recommendations deal with what many federal managers view as one of their toughest challenges in the years ahead: how to convince prospective IT workers to enter government and stay. With the demand for workers outstripping supply, the problem has become particularly urgent - in and out of government.

But the problem has special significance within government, where much of the IT labor pool appears on the brink of retirement.

"There are a whole lot of individuals who are in the period of leaving the federal work force," said Kelly Carnes, deputy assistant secretary in the Commerce Department's Office of Technology Policy. "It will become more of a competitive challenge to refill these jobs."

Ira Hobbs, deputy CIO at the Agriculture Department, said the government has to fight its prevailing image as a staid bureaucracy if it is to attract the kind of IT workers it needs. That would entail an effort to move away from its paper-based method of recruitment to increased use of the Internet.

"We are still recruiting the way we did five or 10 years ago," Hobbs said. "The folks we are talking about use computers, and that is how they get information. If we are posting [job opportunities] in the service and personnel offices, we are not going to reach them."

Hobbs cited the Internal Revenue Service's World Wide Web site, which features advertisements for employment opportunities, as an example of a tool that should be used throughout government. The IRS site allows prospective employees to submit their resumes electronically.

Joan Steyaert, deputy associate administrator in the General Services Administration's Office of Information Technology Policy, said the task force is considering a recommendation to start "an ROTC IT program" that would help students with tuition in exchange for a commitment to work for the government for up to five years. "If we are really to be competitive, we have to expand our activities of reaching out to universities," Steyaert said.

John Putzier, president of FirStep Inc., a performance improvement training firm in Prospect, Pa., said tuition-exchange programs are not that effective. "It's not addressing the real issue," he said. "The real issue is why would anybody want to work there, not why would anybody have to work there.... Who wants employees who are shackled to the place?"

Hobbs said the group also will recommend that the government offer lump sum recruitment and retention bonuses and use "pay banding" to allow agencies to offer a wider range of salaries for specific jobs. He said the government also should emphasize its generous benefits.

But electronic posting and tuition plans may not help the government attract IT workers as well as a good marketing campaign will, according to Putzier. "Posting jobs electronically would help because you're getting your job out to more people," Putzier said. "But all that does is get you in line with everybody else."

Marketing federal benefits is a good idea, said Putzier, who also heads a special high-technology issues group at the Society for Human Resource Management. "Microsoft doesn't pay as well as its competitors do, but it's a neat place to work," he said. "[The federal government] has a terrific benefits plan. Their benefits are better than anybody else's in industry."

Federal agencies also should highlight the uniqueness of their missions, Putzier said. "Give [IT recruits] a sense of purpose - that they are not just data entry people, that they are affecting the world in some way," he said.

Steyaert said the government also has trouble retaining employees at the middle and executive levels. To help retain mid-level employees, Steyaert said the task force plans to recommend the government set up a "gateway of gateways" that would serve as a centralized site for training in areas for IT specialties. She said the Labor Department's "America's Learning eXchange" and Commerce's "go for IT!" Web sites could serve as models.

Hobbs said agencies should consider federal employees who are not currently working in IT as well as targeting women, minorities and people with disabilities. For executive-level jobs, Steyaert suggested that government and industry could rotate jobs to expand employees' knowledge.

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