The 'digital generation' drive

Agency officials are looking more seriously at attracting the so-called digital generation as a potential source of skilled information technology workers. Recent college graduates could become a valuable part of the IT workforce in government, particularly as agencies brace for the growing wave of retirements expected during the next five years.

A report released by the General Accounting Office earlier this month said that 14 percent of computer specialists are expected to retire by 2006. "We have to find some people to replace the skilled people who are leaving," said Fred Thompson, assistant director for Customer Service Consulting within the Treasury Department's chief information officer office. "And we need to bring them into the workforce quickly."

Agency-specific efforts such as internship programs and enticements such as tuition reimbursement can help attract the young IT worker to public service, but there isn't an organized governmentwide focus on recruiting recent college graduates — at least not yet, Thompson said. "It's really [done] on an agency-by-agency basis."

The Education Department, for example, offers internship programs, a stay-in-school program where students can work part-time for the department, and a scholar program designed to attract graduate or undergraduate students to government by bringing them in at a higher level based on their grade point average, said Craig Luigart, Education CIO.

While Education "has always had a mission" to bridge education and the workforce, the aging IT workforce has brought a sense of urgency to the issue, Luigart said. Around 15 percent of the employees in Education's Office of the CIO are eligible to retire during the next five years, he said. New technology skills and "new thinking" are significant talents that young IT workers can bring to the organization.

The CIO Council has been helping agencies understand their options when it comes to attracting recent college graduates, said Gloria Parker, CIO at the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Those options include pay flexibilities such as recruiting bonuses and programs in the information security area where students work for government in exchange for tuition.

"We're also doing major outreach to high school and junior high" students so they can learn about and at least consider an IT job in government, Parker said. "You have to develop students before they get to that point and develop them once they are out of school."

New graduates — particularly those with certifications and internship experience — don't necessarily have to come in at an entry-level position, Parker added.

But to even begin attracting these young workers, agencies must first know what prospective candidates expect from a job. As part of its research into pay and compensation for IT workers in government, the National Academy of Public Administration found that the so-called Generation Y is motivated by several factors, including a large amount of freedom on the job, good pay, chance for promotion and opportunity for personal development.

Also, young IT workers place more importance on such things as work environment, work-life quality, challenging assignments and career advancement. "These are very important to IT workers at all levels, but particularly young IT workers," said Myra Shiplett, director of NAPA's Center for Human Resources Management. It's also "very important for these young folks to be recognized for what they do."

In many cases, agencies will first need to address their corporate management culture and reconsider the "cradle-to-grave" mentality so often associated with a career in government, Treasury's Thompson said. "How to manage [cultural issues] will present a challenge," he said.

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