The ones that got away
- By Doug Simpson
- Aug 07, 2000
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
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
"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.
"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
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
"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
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
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
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
"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.