Look outward to fix the IT worker crisis

Government agency managers concerned about the dearth of high-tech workers

have long days and sleepless nights ahead of them: The problem, in all likelihood,

will get worse long before it gets better.

Such pessimism sounds unproductive, but it isn't. Sooner or later, agencies

at all levels of government must come to terms with the economic conditions

that have created and sustained the information technology worker shortage.

Then — and maybe only then — they will be ready for the solution available

to them.

Think about it in terms of supply and demand. In many parts of the country,

people with the right technical skills and experience can pick and choose

among dozens of jobs in their area or relocate to areas where the shortage

is even more pronounced. The result is akin to a bidding war.

Government agencies, in most cases, cannot win that war. Private companies

can often absorb the financial shock because they can adjust the prices

of their products and services accordingly, ensuring a return on their investment.

Or they can pay employees with company stock, which ensures that payroll

rises only as the companies' returns increase.

Agencies have no such options. They may win battles occasionally by

crafting more flexible and creative employment policies, but that will only

stem the loss of employees, not reverse the trend.

But agencies are not helpless in this market economy. Rather than put

themselves in a position where they are bidding for IT services, they should

put the services they require up for bid. That is, they should outsource.

Like their commercial counterparts, many government agencies are earmarking

more money each year for technology, buying new and better networks and

computers, and investing more money in management services.

Those products and services — packaged together across a state, county

or city government and put up for bid — could attract offers from a large

number of IT services firms. The recent outsourcing deal in San Diego County,

for example, brought offers from Computer Sciences Corp., Electronic Data

Systems Corp. and IBM Corp.

In addition to the more commonly cited benefits — including more predictable

IT costs and better management services — outsourcing gets government agencies

out of the business of recruiting, hiring, training and replacing high-ticket

employees and allows them to focus on putting that technology to good use.

No one should underestimate the difficulty of outsourcing. Connecticut

put together a billion-dollar deal with EDS only to see it fall apart because

the two sides failed to agree on terms of the deal, including the projected

savings. But such difficulties, though complex, can be worked out, as appears

to be the case in San Diego County, where a team led by CSC is entering

its sixth month on a project.

The prognosis for hiring skilled IT workers is grim. At least with outsourcing,

government agencies can get themselves on the right side of the bidding

war.

John Stein Monroe

Editor

civic.com

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