Pay now or pay later

The gap in pay between federal information technology workers and their private-sector counterparts has been a problem federal IT managers have tried to solve for years—and one that has the potential of derailing the vision of a truly digital government.

That's why it is disconcerting that the Army has waved the white flag in its battle to try to find ways to increase pay for federal IT workers. Giving up on the compensation race seems like a no-brainer. After all, private companies offer Army IT personnel salaries of up to $80,000 to join their ranks. In addition, the ".com" companies are luring young IT talent with stock options and the promise of striking it rich quick.

But the Army's decision is worrisome, especially when viewed in the context of what the Army wants to be in the 21st century. As Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. John Keane put it, the IT soldiers are "the linchpin" to fighting cyberwars and to securing U.S. computers from foreign attack.

Top Army officials believe they can replace money with patriotism: IT grads will join the Army and work for significantly less money in typically less-than-desirable living quarters because they want to serve their country.

Civilian agencies plan to use the same reasoning to attract IT workers to non-DOD work.

Sure, many Americans are willing to give up some money to serve their country. But the reality is that most don't. And that means severely draining the labor pool of qualified candidates.

Even soldiers who chose less pay because of their patriotic duty warn about giving up the compensation battle.

In a letter to the editor in this issue, an Army National Guardsman warns, "If we don't pay now, we will pay later" (see "Don't surrender on IT pay").

For sure, this is not an easy problem to solve, especially in light of the strict spending caps. But if government is serious about pursuing a digital future, it cannot afford not to attract and keep talented IT workers.

The cost would be well worth it.

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