IT job front remains critical

It won't be much easier for agencies to find skilled information technology workers this year, despite the slower economy and the recent string of dot-com layoffs.

The IT workforce is grow-ing, but demand for technology workers is expected to outpace supply once again this year, with 425,358 IT jobs going unfilled, according to a report released last week by the Information Technology Association of America. That figure is smaller than last year's shortfall of 843,328.

Although the gap between demand and supply may be smaller this year than in 2000, organizations should not be complacent, said Harris Miller, president of ITAA. "There's still a shortage even in light of the "dot-bombs' and the slowdown in the economy," he said.

That means when it comes to filling the gaps, agencies, just like industry, will continue to struggle to attract the best and brightest, said Miller, speaking at the ITAA National IT Workforce Convocation in San Diego. The study surveyed 685 managers at IT and non-IT companies.

Agencies face some disadvantages. Hemmed in by federal salary caps, they cannot pay the high salaries that many private-sector companies offer to attract and retain their employees. And the ITAA report found that IT workers have the same primary retention incentive: money. "People do care about how much they get paid," Miller said.

Major changes are needed, he said. The federal CIO Council and the Office of Personnel Management have "done a good job" in drawing attention to the government's staffing woes, "but unless they are willing to make dramatic changes in hiring and compensation, they will always be facing this," Miller said.

"The government is in crisis mode," said Bill Sebra, chief executive officer of Knowledge Workers Inc., an Englewood, Colo., firm that provides human capital planning. The average age of federal employees is 49, and about half of federal workers are eligible to retire in the next several years.

Outsourcing relieves some pressure, but outsourcing "domain expertise is a huge mistake," Sebra said. Agencies must look to the source of the future IT workforce, and this starts with marketing the government as a good place to work.

"The challenge for us is [this]: How do we get people excited about government work?" he said. "The government itself needs to change what it's selling and how it sells itself." Agencies should write exciting job descriptions, provide clear career paths and promotion opportunities, and be willing to make spot hires for specific projects, he said. Agencies should no longer expect employees to sign on for a 30-year stint in government.

The government should also emphasize training, said Ernst Volgenau, president and CEO of SRA International, a systems integrator with many government clients. "The military and government have done a better job at training than industry," he said.

Skills and training do make a difference, according to the ITAA report. "Just having the technical skills isn't enough," Miller said. Interpersonal skills, loyalty to the organization and commitment to finishing assignments and projects proved to be the most sought-after qualities for new hires. They were also rated as the most important skills to have for career advancement, but the most difficult "soft skills" to teach. About one-third of the respondents viewed "learn by doing" as the best way to develop those capabilities.

Agencies should also consider sometimes overlooked sources of talent, such as women and minorities, said Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.). There is $150 million in untapped money at the Labor Department that is "waiting for diversity programs and partnering," Conyers said.

He urged industry and government to take action now. "We have to treat this as a national emergency because that's what it is."

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