The ones that got away

Frank Seiber is becoming very familiar with two simple words: "I quit."

Seiber, information services director for Raleigh, N.C., keeps hiring young

systems analysts. He pays them a good wage. He sends them to expensive software

training courses.

And they keep quitting. They dump him for corporate

bosses offering more money. "At first, I asked myself, "Is it something

I'm doing wrong?' " Seiber said. "As best I can tell, the answer is, "No.'

"

Unfortunately for Seiber, Raleigh is home to Research Triangle Park, a collection

of gleaming office buildings that house world-class high-technology corporations,

including IBM Corp., Cisco Systems Inc., Lucent Technologies and Nortel

Networks. Those companies have all the lures — prestige, fat paychecks,

fancy offices — that Seiber lacks.

"It hurts," Seiber said.

Jilted information technology managers are a dime a dozen these days.

With a nationwide shortage of qualified technical workers, employers in

both the public and private sectors are scrambling to find qualified employees.

But the shortage is hitting state and local governments especially hard,

just as governments are booting up new World Wide Web sites and electronic

government initiatives.

"Governments just cannot pay what the private sector can pay," said Dale

Bowen, director of online services for Public Technology Inc., a nonprofit

group representing cities and county governments. "How to find and keep

IT workers is about the biggest issue we're facing."

In an April Council of State Governments poll, 47 out of 50 states reported

a shortage of information technology workers. Forty-four states called the

shortage "regular" or "chronic." Fourteen states reported a vacancy rate

of more than 15 percent, and three states — North Carolina, Georgia and

Indiana — have an IT vacancy rate of more than 20 percent.

To deal with the issue, governments are experimenting and changing some

entrenched traditions. Most governments are raising IT salaries. Some train

nontechnical employees, such as clerical workers, in information technology,

hoping they will stay on the job longer than recent college graduates. Minnesota

now offers private-sector-style incentives: signing bonuses for new employees and referral bonuses for workers who attract new hires.

New Strategies

"Governments often aren't as nimble or as quick as we should be in this

fast-changing world," said Rick Webb, North Carolina's chief information

officer, who also couldn't resist the lure of the private sector — late

last month he accepted a job offer from Pricewaterhouse-Coopers. "But [the

government is] feeling the shortage of workers, and [it will] have to look

at a lot of new ideas."

One of Webb's new ideas was to stop thinking of high-tech corporations

as the enemy. Like Seiber, Webb was based in Raleigh, and some of the state's

employees will always be running off to work for companies like IBM and

Cisco.

So in coordination with Cisco and the governor's office, Webb offered

$10,000 to each of North Carolina's most economically deprived counties

to set up Cisco Academies — institutes staffed and equipped by Cisco where

county residents can receive computer training. In the long term, Webb hoped

many Cisco Academy graduates would end up working for state, city or county

governments.

"We've got a shortage, but the private sector has a shortage too," he

said back in July. "By working with Cisco, I think they can win and we can

win, too."

That may help in the long term, but managers like Seiber are still struggling.

As information services director, Seiber oversees nearly all of Raleigh's

high-tech operations, including computer operations for the city's Web site,

financial services and public utilities. His infrastructure department

is responsible for keeping computer systems running smoothly, but it is

perpetually short-staffed.

Seiber has 15 positions in his infrastructure department, and during

the past three years, the department has had at least three and sometimes

four vacancies at a time. In other words, the department has been operating

at about 75 percent of its capacity.

As analysts keep defecting to the private sector, Seibert said he looks

to the future and sees no relief: "I don't see any light at the end of the

tunnel."

But some IT managers have found ways to hang on to their workers. Governments'

most common short-term fix is to raise salaries. Seiber often hires entry-level

IT staffers at $29,000 per year — several thousand dollars more than he

did a few years ago. Alameda County, Calif., instituted an across-the-board

12 percent salary increase for its IT staff.

"We're never going to be able to compete with companies that offer stock

options, but we've got to try and keep our salaries fairly competitive,"

said Dave MacDonald, Alameda's IT director.

The problem is, the private sector has rewards other than money. Aside

from big salaries, governments also lack high-tech companies' cutting-edge

allure. Working on a Web page for the sanitation department will never have

the cachet of working at an e-commerce dot-com.

"Government just doesn't have the glamour," MacDonald said.

Seeing the Light

But there may be hope for governments after all. Those who have studied

the IT worker's mind have made an interesting discovery: Money isn't everything.

The Council of State Governments reports that "most IT workers appear

to be unlike many other types of workers. Though monetary compensation

ranks high in importance, they tend to seek other rewards as well."

According to the report, "IT workers generally seek out greater intellectual

stimulation in their jobs, and, when their current job becomes lackluster,

they seek out more challenging opportunities. Many of these job-hopping

workers report that they intend to stay with an employer only as long as

the work is exciting to them."

And when they're dissatisfied, IT specialists don't have to look very

hard to find another job. David Moore, a software applications expert in

Baton Rouge, La., said he "wasn't really even looking" to leave his job

as an analyst with the Louisiana Division of Administration.

He sent out one resume, though, and a private company quickly offered

him a position and a 13 percent raise.

"I took that job, almost regretfully," Moore said. "I wasn't dissatisfied

at work, I just wasn't really happy. I wanted to explore some options, and

they gave me just enough money to make me go ahead and take it."

So after six years of work for the state, he left. But his higher-paying

job didn't really do it for him either. After just nine months at that private-sector

job, Moore learned of a job opening at his former office — developing a

new human resources program — that sounded challenging and interesting.

So he went back to his old state office — at his old salary. "I've not regretted

coming back at all," said Moore, now an applications project leader whose

job pays in the low $40,000 range. "I don't want to totally downplay money,

but there are other things a little more important."

In this case, Moore said, it's interesting work: "I'm learning new technology

now, and I've got deadlines that make things a lot more intense and exciting."

Exciting, high-tech work has a pull even in smaller cities like Salisbury,

N.C., population 26,000. Mike Crowell, the city's technology services manager,

keeps his workers interested by keeping them as wired as possible.

Crowell's workers recently implemented a program that allows Salisbury

residents to pay their water bills online. His staff also instituted a system

that automatically converts faxes and voice-mail messages into e-mail. And

his employees know that the city will fund their experiments with new

technology.

"If someone wants to buy a [handheld], we let them go ahead and buy

it, and then figure out where it might fit" into the city's technology system,

Crowell said. "We try to make the work environment very conducive to learning.

That way, [employees are] not just sitting there losing their skills."

Like Crowell, MacDonald strives to make his Alameda County IT shop as

up-to-date as possible. His employees recently launched an initiative —

the first in California — that allows Alameda residents to pay their traffic

tickets online. It's that sort of innovation and challenge, he said, that

helps him hang on to IT workers.

"If people are working on projects they're really interested in, then

they're going to stay," he said. "We are as state-of-the-art as any private

company out there, so we've got a pretty exciting work environment. That

really makes a difference."

But although workers don't often defect to nearby San Francisco's Internet

companies, MacDonald still faces a major problem: persuading qualified candidates

to work for him in the first place.

"We have trouble getting them in the front door," he said. "That's still

a little hard." So instead of searching for elusive IT workers through employment

ads, some governments look for future experts among their current employees.

As San Francisco's deputy human resources manager, Ray Wong oversaw

the city's implementation of a new human resources computer program. To

deal with a shortage of IT workers, he sought out trusted employees in other

fields. When he found some who were interested in a change, he trained them — and turned them into high-tech experts.

One of Wong's IT workers used to investigate sexual harassment complaints;

now he's a senior program analyst. Another did clerical work; now he writes

computer code and eliminates computer viruses. Wong's former secretary is

now a network administrator.

Such in-house training projects take time. Wong's workers took from

three to eight years to transform into IT experts. But now he has trusted

technical workers who, Wong said, are more dedicated to staying put.

"When people are allowed to achieve and grow like this, they thrive,"

he said. "They're much more likely to stay."

Push the Pluses

But many IT managers don't have the luxury of training people for three

years. They need workers now. They find themselves interviewing potential

hires and trying to find ways to lure them in. When facing a dubious applicant,

Seiber tries to emphasize the advantages of the public sector.

"I get creative," he said. "I tell them about the benefits package,

and I let them know that working with us offers a lot of stability."

After all, the public sector has its pluses. Governments usually have retirement

plans that are far more stable than stock options or private investment

plans. And in a government office, the workday is generally more predictable

than in the private sector.

So far, though, efforts at marketing the public-sector lifestyle have

failed. The Council of State Governments' poll found three main obstacles

to overcoming the shortage of government IT workers: low pay, lack of qualified

workers and the perception that government technology lags "far behind that

of the private sector and lacks much appeal."

Frank Seiber already knows about the obstacles. He's still smarting from

the workers who dumped him in favor of high-tech companies.

One of the more painful defections was a junior systems analyst in his

late 20s. Facing his typical staffing shortage, Seiber hired the young man

for a few thousand dollars more than the usual entry-level salary. Then

Seiber used city money to send him to an 18-month, $9,000 training course

in Oracle database administration.

Once the analyst finished the training, he quit. He now works for Cisco.

"When he had that training under his belt, he rewrote his resume and

he was gone," Seiber said. "That's just one of the costs of doing business.

But it hurts anyway."

—Simpson is a writer based in New Orleans.

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