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'Great servers, unhappy administrators'


In response to a Dec. 13 FCW article on a report that said the government is decisively losing the battle for IT talent, a reader wrote:

"In a ploy to appease the masses, the government has decided to cut corners, and one of the simplest ones to cut is IT. And what's been cut the deepest is how they treat the people in IT, especially the people who do the work. So many will talk about how much is being spent in IT, but they balk at talking about the things they're doing to attract and keep IT workers. You end up with great servers being run by many unhappy administrators."

Reid Davenport responds: That comment demonstrates how difficult it is to clear the smoke of ambivalence and pinpoint how to refill the talent pipeline. Even though the report identifies compensation disparity as a major hindrance to employee recruitment and retention, its reasoning is backed by employee perception rather than concrete numbers.

How do you compare a worker's salary at Microsoft or IBM with one in the government? Do you base it on job title, experience, number of people managed or other factors? As you start going down the list of job details in order of tangibility, with compensation theoretically on top, it becomes less and less feasible to compare the public and private sectors.

Job culture and how IT professionals are treated are among the myriad complaints flung at government. But again, how can we decide whether Microsoft or the Department of Homeland Security treats its IT professionals better? If you say salary, we're back to square one.

This isn't to say that all comparisons between the public and private sectors are useless or naively simplistic, but rather that as issues concerning the federal workforce become less tangible, the margin of error increases.

There is, however, one measurable area other than compensation that the government could pay more attention to. At a time when science, technology, engineering and math jobs are supposed to land the big bucks, STEM's college majors are becoming more attractive. If the government is serious about filling the pipeline, it needs to find a way to recruit college graduates more effectively. Maybe that means creating more programs like the Presidential Innovation Fellows program, which attracts the best and brightest from the private sector in exchange for a prestigious resume line and an opportunity to effect real change in the public sector.

Posted by Reid Davenport on Jan 10, 2014 at 6:02 AM


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