Workplace differences narrowing

The government work environment differs from the private sector work environment in dramatic ways, three information technology executives said April 29, but the differences are beginning to narrow.

"Government is moving away from process and much more toward performance," said Gloria Parker, chief information officer for the Department of Housing and Urban Development. She was speaking at a panel discussion titled "IT Opportunities for Women in Government and Industry," hosted by Women in Technology, a trade group.

"Many of the things I used to be able to do at IBM Corp. [in terms of hiring and management], we are now beginning to do in government," said Parker, who spent 17 years as a sales and marketing executive with the IT manufacturing giant before switching to government.

With up to 50 percent of the federal workforce eligible for retirement in the next five years, retaining seasoned IT professionals and attracting new ones is crucial, said Parker and the two other panelists -- Priscilla Guthrie, deputy CIO for the Defense Department, and Anne Reed, former CIO for the Agriculture Department and now president of EDS' State and Local Government Solutions group.

Guthrie, who was vice president of e-business for TRW Inc. before joining DOD in late December 2001, said that making the switch from the private sector to government wasn't traumatic for her because of the similarities between the two worlds.

"Let's face it -- large organizations are large organizations," she said. "But on the positive side, passion and drive work in both government and industry."

Reed, who spent 20 years in government before joining EDS in 2000, said she encountered several challenges when she made the switch. Job titles and descriptions tend to be different, she said, and the way that the private sector determines compensation levels "was a total mystery to me."

To help bridge the gap between industry and government, "I hope at all levels that they make it easier for people to walk in each other's shoes," she said.

The Digital Tech Corps Act of 2002, a bill passed April 10 by the House of Representatives, aims to do just that by allowing midlevel IT managers in federal agencies and private companies to swap jobs for at least six months and as long as two years. The bill is now in the Senate. Although a federal CIO Council study of the federal workforce in 1998 showed that IT professionals look for a number of factors in employment -- including opportunities for leadership, recognition for achievement, workplace autonomy and creativity in job assignments -- the subject of pay is still a sensitive one, Parker said. "That study indicated that we really do need to fix our pay structure across the board," she said.

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