A hands-on approach to developing talent

Like most large agencies, the Social Security Administration has a demand for application developer skills in a broad range of information technology sectors—telecommunications, local-area networks, data.bases, mainframe and client/server systems, imaging and, particularly, Internet and intranet specialties.

Keeping the agency well stocked with IT talent is too important to leave to chance. So SSA officials make the rounds of job fairs, pay regular visits to the 15 or so colleges with the best IT reputations and post job vacancies at some 50 colleges around the country. Agency officials also created a recruitment staff, use Web-based recruitment tools and sometimes employ outside recruitment companies.

To attract IT workers early in their careers, SSA offers financial aid for students and a cooperative arrangement that enables them to work for the agency for certain periods so they can see what SSA has to offer.

"That's a two-year investment right there that we have to commit to upfront," said Dean Mesterharm, deputy commissioner for systems. "But it's one we're willing to make, and so far it seems to be working."

That program accounts for about 20 percent of the agency's recruits. The rest come from outside sources, such as job fairs.

But that's only the start of SSA's hands-on approach to developing talent. When new employees come to the systems department, they are assigned mentors who serve as guides to agency culture and the tools and techniques used there. Individual development plans are worked out between the new employees and their supervisors, which include such things as classes and education programs for employees to keep their technical skills up-to-date.

It's that kind of attention—together with benefits such as paid overtime, flexible hours, child care, gym access and free parking—that Mesterharm says are needed for government to compete in today's IT job market.

About the Author

Brian Robinson is a freelance writer based in Portland, Ore.

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