Projecting a 'hip' image

"IT specialist: Large federal agency seeks dedicated computer whiz for entry-level job. Must be willing to persevere through lengthy hiring process and accept lower-than-average pay. Long-term commitment expected. Experience with frequent organizational meetings a plus."

No agency would pitch a job that way, but they might as well. That's the image that a lot of agency managers and observers think young information technology workers have if — and that's a big "if" — they even consider government service. The government has an image problem, they say, and it needs to change that and quickly.

Around 41 percent of IT employees in government are 41 to 50 years old, according to a National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) report, and a wave of retirements is expected within the decade. With a scarcity of IT workers to fill positions even within the private sector, federal agencies have to find a way to sell themselves.

It's fairly easy to point out the ways in which the government is image- deficient. In a crowded Washington, D.C., conference room earlier this month, federal managers attending a workshop at NAPA fired off example after example:

Slow hiring process. Stifling management that suppresses creativity. Expectation of career-length service. Bureaucracy that focuses on meetings more than outcomes. Some of the government's poor reputation is well-deserved, many say, especially regarding hiring. For example, Ira Hobbs, the Agriculture Department's acting chief information officer and one of the workshop's leaders, said he recently hired five GS-7 workers after a lengthy hiring process that began last October.

But a large part of government's difficulties stems simply from a poor marketing effort. One workshop participant said her agency does fine when recruiting one-on-one with potential hires. But her agency's marketing resources are limited, so replicating that on a larger scale isn't possible, she said.

Bill Sebra, chief executive officer of Knowledge Workers Inc., said that it shouldn't be too hard for government to position itself as an attractive employer. Sebra, whose firm has worked with agencies on IT workforce planning, said it's just a matter of pinpointing an organization's "sizzle" — those things that make an agency exciting and fulfilling to work for.

"Some of the work that [agencies] do is incredible," Sebra said. "The problem is that no one knows about it. The government has lost its edge in going out and attracting people."

For example, the revered halls and reading rooms of the Library of Congress don't excite the majority of IT professionals. But the idea of working on some of the largest digital archives, data warehouses and servers does.

Terri Smith, director of human resources at LOC, said her staff is exploiting the changes in digitizing its collection to project a high-tech image to potential employees.

At a time when the government is experiencing a crisis in recruiting and retaining employees and a large number of federal workers are eligible to retire, agencies such as LOC are putting their state-of-the-art assets on display to entice new recruits.

The library has only one computer specialist position open now, but Smith said the digital future dictates that all employees have some digital experience and skills.

Being unable to offer as much pay as the private sector, agencies also need to better articulate the rewards of public service, observers say. Sean O'Keefe, new deputy director at the Office of Management and Budget, told NAPA conference attendees that "psychic income" — the value government workers receive for serving the public — isn't "selling as much as it used to" with younger workers.

Agencies need to do a better job of "crafting why civil service is important," Sebra said.

They also need to realize young workers won't stick around for their entire careers, O'Keefe said. That's because Generation X workers, in whatever field they pursue, don't want to stay at a job for "more than five years," he said. Rather, they value the freedom to work at a variety of organizations.

As a professor at Syracuse University, only about two-thirds of O'Keefe's graduate students ended up going into public service, and most of those shied away from the federal government because they thought they were expected to remain there for their entire careers, he said.

That notion is "out of step," he said, but the federal government does have something going for it: its size. If advertised as an opportunity to work for a vast number of agencies with wide-ranging missions, more young workers could be drawn into service, O'Keefe said.

Federal agencies might want to look at the military academies' track record for inspiration, Sebra said. "People are waiting in line" to get into those schools, he said, for a shot at a good education and applicable experience afterward. Agencies could offer the same benefits in return for service, just as the academies do.

"There's no reason we couldn't do that with other organizations to get people into government," he said.

Agencies can also stress their stable, "recession-proof" attributes, Sebra said. Recent IT graduates may be less apt to risk joining a start-up company today than a year or two ago.

Although the government's IT workforce challenges are immense and immediate, changing its image with the hiring pool may not be complicated, Sebra said. "I really believe that if government retools itself and gets aggressive, it actually could come out very well in a short period of time." nLinks:

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