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'Great servers, unhappy administrators'

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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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Reader comments

Mon, Jan 13, 2014

STEM graduates are great--but lots of the best IT people are Liberal Arts graduates. Learning IT doesn't necessarily take a STEM degree. Liberal Arts graduates have been taught to think--which helps in any job.

Sun, Jan 12, 2014 utopia27 United States

Mr. Davenport is taking refuge in what he desires to perceive as intangibles and incomparables. There is some merit to this, not because the issues discussed are incomparable, but because the hard work to compare them systemically has been neglected. It is perfectly feasible to align and compare private and public sector IT responsibilities for various positions. The government-side position descriptions, however, are lumped into '2210' or '1550', and local HR departments do not permit requirements in excess of the de minimus OPM definitions for GS-rated positions. On the private sector side, because the hiring manager is less constrained by law, the position descriptions are less clearly laid out, and less uniform. Any reasonable study of public/private sector IT position comparisons, however, should look to individuals moving between positions - the actual history of comparable skill sets. The compensation calculations (including benefits package weighting) is quite achievable. Culture and environment are comparable - the first-order statistics are turnover rates and job satisfaction rates. These are readily measurable. Beyond that, at least on the federal side, the job satisfaction survey dives deeper into particulars and subcategories. Similar surveys can be conducted on the private sector side - though it requires effort. I would submit that these types of studies have not been performed, and are disparaged, because the federal sector will fare so poorly in the comparison. Particularly in the areas of job satisfaction and culture. Federal IT is sorely in need of a reboot, and that has to start with the capability of its management, and the culture they engender.

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