Growing Your Own Skilled IT Work Force

Tucson, Ariz., like many cities, is experiencing a surge in its high-technology sector. Because Tucson is my home, I am happy to see the local economy thriving. On the other hand, prosperity has brought some problems.

For one thing, the resulting demand for high-tech workers has left my office, the city's Department of Information Technology, with a shortage of skilled IT staff members.

Several IT employees have migrated to the private sector because the city cannot match the compensation offered

to them. This shortage is showing up in the little things: routine computer projects going undone or department inventories unstocked. However, it may lead to more serious problems as public services become more dependent on IT.

Because the wage disparity between the public and private sectors is not likely to go away any time soon, I believe that state and local governments must be innovative in how we locate, train and retain our IT work force. And if we are not going to attract skilled IT workers from outside our jurisdictions, we might start by looking closer to home.

Tucson has started a technical internship program with computer science students from local Pima Community College (PCC). The students are getting hands-on technical training, academic credit and an above-minimum-wage paycheck. We are providing flexible work assignments to accommodate each student's full-time class schedule.

The students work in different areas of IT to see how a city support department functions, and they gain an understanding of how a large government organization operates. Some interns are assigned to projects that involve working with the Department of Development Services and the Tucson Police Department.

Staff members in the IT department initially were concerned that training interns would slow their own job performance. It hasn't, because a key to our selection criteria during the interview process is the student's personality: We look for enthusiasm and a sincere interest in developing personal and computer science skills.

The assignment of routine or mundane jobs has not bothered the students at all. Rather, we find that their eagerness to work in the field of computer technology keeps them motivated and prepares them for more complicated tasks. In fact, many are finding their true career paths.

Here are a few observations from people involved in the program:

"It's an opportunity for students to apply their classroom skills in a real-world setting," said Bill Pagnotta, faculty co-ordinator for PCC's Computer Sciences Intern Program. "Because IT works with all city departments, the students are exposed to more than if they were employed in a private organization. The students' participation and the city's feedback also give the college direction in adjusting courses and programs to meet the needs of the community."

PCC student Ryan Tornberg: "I had no chance to do design work at my previous job, and it wasn't long before I was asked to help design a new records database for the Consumer Affairs Office. Once, I thought database work was boring. Not only have I changed my opinion, I've changed my career plan."

PCC student Jane Rodgers: "My first assignment was documenting [the IT department's] inventory using a higher-level [Microsoft Corp.] Access program. Since I am currently taking only a first-level course, the city quickly enrolled me in its back-to-back-to-back Access courses. Now I am helping tutor fellow students in my college class. It was like I jumped ahead a few semesters."

It's a partnership where everybody wins: the students, the city, the community. Students receive technical training and are compensated above the minimum wage; the city improves its services to internal and external customers and benefits from a closer relationship with PCC; and the community has better-qualified students ready for higher-paying jobs here in Tucson.

Our intern program has shown us the value of a partnership between community-based organizations. It also demonstrated that public-sector IT managers should consider going beyond traditional means of problem-solving to address the worker shortage in their own communities.

Todd Sander is the director of Tucson's Department of Information Technology. He can be reached at tsander1@ci.tucson.az.us.

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