Governments scuffle for IT workers

State and local governments and other public-sector groups are having a tough time hiring and keeping qualified information technology staff despite a glut of skilled workers looking for jobs in this recession, according to a new national survey.

Gartner Inc., a Stamford, Conn.-based research and consulting firm, found that 87 percent of state governments and 80 percent of local governments will continue to experience a constant, or in a few cases, severe critical shortage of qualified employees.

"We were surprised by that," said Bill Keller, public-sector research director for Gartner. "I think that part of it is that governments don't market themselves very well. I think if you ask [chief information officers] to list their job responsibilities, many will put retention and recruitment at the bottom of the list, and I think that's a mistake."

Obstacles include lower salaries compared with the private sector, lack of bonuses and advancement, poor leadership, and government rules for hiring and firing employees.

Keller said IT recruits are not used to taking civil service tests to enter the government workforce, and concurrently, the public sector may have a difficult time getting rid of underperforming employees.

Compounding the problem are the current economic conditions, shrinking state and local budgets, and an aging workforce. According to the survey, 54 percent of state agencies reported that 11 percent to 20 percent of their IT staff members are eligible to retire in five years, and 32 percent cited that more than 20 percent are eligible to retire. Similarly, 48 percent of local agencies said 11 percent to 20 percent of their IT staff is eligible to retire in five years.

These situations have left governments with a shortage of advanced-level IT personnel, defined as people with strong technical knowledge, more than seven years of experience and management skills. To compensate, agencies have used "external staff" or outsourced projects and contracts, Keller said. That's not a bad thing if done sensibly, but costs are higher than if the work is done internally, he added.

To counteract this trend, Keller said state legislatures, executive branches, CIOs and unions will have to take a broad workforce management perspective, such as changing human resource procedures and creating incentives to attract and retain personnel. Some governments — Iowa in particular — are developing innovative practices, but the future is unclear.

"We're predicting that it'll be a case-by-case basis," Keller said. "For governments that do develop a workforce management strategy and implement it, I think things will get better. Those that don't, even if they recruit better people, they'll leave in no time flat."

A total of 123 government agencies — 68 governments and 55 education districts — were polled during the summer, just before the Sept. 11 attacks. Keller said Gartner plans to make this an annual survey, adding that "next year, it'll be interesting whether this new patriotism will drive more people to give [the public sector] a try."

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