Cures for the workforce blues
- By Ed McKenna
- Feb 04, 2001
With an assist from the state of Texas, Lynn Moore has begun building a
second career in information technology.
A former dental hygienist and recent business administration graduate
from the University of Phoenix, Moore has been able to take advantage of
the newly created Texas Information Technology Academy (www.texasitacademy.org)
to quickly acquire technology skills and a systems analyst position with
the state's Comptroller of Public Accounts office.
Moore is one of 29 students to graduate in October 2000 as part of the
first class of the Texas IT Academy, a pilot project launched by the state's
office of the comptroller early last year. The academy is a private/public-sector
initiative providing an intensive 14-week training program and entry-level
jobs to non-IT professionals in the state. In return, the trainees are required
to work for the state for two years.
The rationale for the program is straightforward, said Billy Hamilton,
the state's deputy comptroller. The state is having a huge problem retaining
IT people, with state agencies losing six out of 10 IT specialists to private
industry over the past few years, added Hamilton, an early driving force
behind the academy.
Texas is not alone. "Government organizations are really struggling,"
said Jim Ballard, senior director of sales consulting at Oracle Corp. in
Austin. State IT managers throughout the United States all have the same
problem, Ballard said: "How to find and attract IT staffers when the private
sector can offer so much more in the way of better compensation, better
access to technology and stock options."
Ballard helped organize the Texas IT Academy and taught classes on
e-business tools and server technology.
A few statistics underscore the problem. The first and most obvious
is an unemployment rate of around 3 percent, "so the bottom line is there
is just a shortage of available people," said Keira Blazer, director of
recruiting at KPMG Consulting LLC, McLean, Va.
As far as the IT market is concerned, technology changes so quickly
that there can never be enough people trained in any particular skill set,
In Texas, the IT job vacancy rate is about 10 percent, or about 900
workers, said Carolyn Purcell, executive director of the Texas Department
of Information Resources.
Critical obstacles to filling those positions are the public-sector
image and the bottom line. "IT professionals seek out jobs that challenge
and are kind of bleeding edge they want to be where the action is," Purcell
Pay is another barrier, she said.
Over the past year, Texas has raised its wage caps for many IT specialists
from about $55,000 to about $70,000, according to the comptroller's office.
Those increases have helped retain employees, Purcell said.
Texas officials realize those increases still fall short of what industry
can pay for skilled workers.
The NASIRE study pegged the average national wage for a database manager
in all sectors at $68,168, for example. The average wage for those workers
in financial organizations one of the highest paying sectors is nearly
To make up for the skills shortage, Texas spends about 30 percent of
its $1.4 billion IT budget on outsourcing.
The academy will not replace outsourcing, Hamilton stressed, noting
that the program will not produce personnel as skilled as a high-level Unix
worker. "Even if you outsourced everything, you still need people who understand
the link between technology and the business process," he said.
The idea for the IT academy grew out of encounters with employees who
had been arts majors but ended up performing IT tasks, such as installing
networks. "What we found from talking to these people is that a lot of them
would like to get into IT, but they have no idea how to get their feet wet,"
In about September 1999, Hamilton put together a PowerPoint presentation
outlining the IT academy proj-ect and presented it to agency IT groups,
He found a receptive audience.
By the end of the year, the comptroller's office put together a public/private
advisory committee with participation from 73 organizations, including state
agencies, universities and technology companies, such as Oracle, Cisco Systems
Inc. and KPMG Consulting. (A full list can be found at the Texas IT Academy
Web site.) Providing their services without cost, companies used the project
as a way to generate good will with Texas, a big IT customer, officials
The Building Blocks
Key components of the initiative included paying candidates entry-level
salaries while they trained and requiring them to work for the state for
two years after classes ended. The salary requirement was intended to induce
candidates outside the Austin area to come to the capital to train and work,
while the work requirement ensured that agencies would gain some benefit
from the program.
Rare in government, the work requirement is commonplace in the private
sector among companies such as KPMG, Blazer said. KPMG usually requires
a year's employment of em-ployees it trains, she added, warning that Texas'
two-year pledge may scare away some young college graduates.
A number of subcommittees were set up to devise the curriculum and candidate
Agencies, responding to surveys, indicated that networking skills were
a priority, Hamilton said. They also expressed a need for e-business applications
skills. "There is a big push in this state, as [in] others, to get on the
Web," he said.
The curriculum ended up being broad, including fundamental computer
classes taught by state em-ployees and Texas State Technical College faculty,
and industry-led classes in areas such as program management, networking
and database management design administration.
In March, the state started seeking applications. Texas Comptroller
Carole Keeton Rylander took the lead, announcing the new program in speeches
around the state. Press releases were also issued, prompting newspaper articles
throughout Texas, Hamilton said.
The program received 930 applications, well above the couple of hundred
that were expected, he said.
Moore's interest was sparked by an article in the local newspaper of
Hamilton, Texas. She sent her application in April.
Along with all the others, that application was judged on a number of
criteria, including education and IT experience and aptitude, Hamilton said.
"For example, you could get extra points if you used to do some computer
work for your church or something like that," he said, adding that applicants
were also given an online IT aptitude rating.
The top 100 candidates were then interviewed by telephone.
The agencies considered all the information and whittled down the list
to find the lucky 30.
Moore got her acceptance at the end of July, shortly before classes
began in early August. The class work provided a "quick introduction to
build up their muscles fast," Ballard said. "It was pretty rigorous with
students sitting there Monday through Friday just getting their heads packed
with information," he said, noting that there were weekly tests to ensure
that they were retaining the information.
Students were given laptop computers to use in class and were also allowed
to detach them from the docking station and take them home so they could
work at night, Moore said. Students also were given access to a few online
Twenty-nine of the 30 students graduated in October. One was forced
to drop out for personal reasons, Moore said. All were placed in entry-level
jobs at different agencies with Moore becoming a systems analyst with the
IT division of the comptroller's office.
The comptroller is now tallying the cost of the first class and planning
for a second to begin next year. Hamilton estimated that the class cost
$125,000 to $150,000.
All of the funds were scraped together from contributions from the different
agencies involved in the project. However, the group is preparing to ask
the state legislature for $200,000 to $250,000 a year to fund a slightly
expanded version of the academy, Hamilton said. He said he was optimistic,
especially because the first class seems to have been a success.
Moore seconds that observation. "It definitely gave us an edge and got
our feet inside the door," she said.
As for the future, she said, "I am definitely looking forward to working
in the comptroller's office for the next two years, and after that I'll
assess what I'll do at that time."
McKenna is a freelance writer based in the San Francisco Bay area.