How the federal government is attracting a new generation of technology workers
Although experts are perpetually forecasting a massive brain drain of senior information technology workers, a remarkable change is occurring in the federal workplace — a new generation of tech workers is deciding that the federal government is not a dead end.
"A lot of dinosaurs like me will be gone in three years," said Scott Hastings, president of the Association for Federal Information Resources Management (AFFIRM), an industry/government group working to attract new IT workers to government. "There will be a huge turnover. The dot-com boom and bust may have helped us out in the last couple of years. But I'm not sure we're getting people in because of the economy or [because the] word is out."
The word is out that baby boomers are retiring from the government, new recruits say. And there is plenty of evidence that federal IT shops are changing. Hip-hop is hot. Workers run home to watch the latest episode of "Friends" or "Sex and the City," and Sony Corp.'s PlayStation is more popular than Pong.
The Class of 2004 is looking for job security, a healthy benefits package and a chance to move up before they turn gray, all of which the federal government offers. The stereotype of government workers being paper pushers punching time clocks no longer exists, according to the new generation.
Many are motivated by patriotism and a desire to give something back after witnessing the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
Take, for example, Chrisdon Hall, 25, a program analyst on a large Internet project at the Transportation Security Administration. The day after Sept. 11, she quit her previous job, and life has never been the same.
"I underestimated my ability to be dedicated," said Hall, who has an IT degree from George Mason University. After helping unload supplies at the smoldering Pentagon Sept. 11, she accepted a temporary job at TSA that turned into a full-time one.
Even though she is the second youngest IT professional in her office, she usually doesn't see a generation gap. She said her colleagues sometimes tell her, " 'You've got your whole life ahead of you. You've got plenty of time to figure out where you are headed. You are lucky you still have your health.' "
The requirements are tough. Government employers want the best and brightest students who are at the top of their classes, have straight As and major in IT as undergraduates.
And in return, younger government workers deliver fresh ideas. "I feel I bring a younger set of ideas," said Jason Hull, 25, an IT specialist at TSA. "I'm a lot closer to the Computer Age. My generation was the first to grow up with computers."
There are lots of young faces at SSA, said Shakiera Milledde, 24, a database administrator who has a master's degree in information management systems.
"Several of my co-workers are twice my age," she said. "I do see a generation gap, but I also see a lot of new faces. They are bringing in new people all the time."
But there is a long way to go, said Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America. Government still needs to do much more to attract women, minorities and workers with disabilities, he said. For example, the federal government must work harder to help young workers pass security clearances, a necessary tool in the age of hackers and homeland security.
"We've been working with the federal CIO Council for years" on recruiting younger workers, Miller said. "We told them frankly that as long as their salary and benefits weren't competitive, they were going to have a hard time."
Some initiatives are already under way. Office
of Personnel Management officials held recruitment fairs nationwide in major
metropolitan areas, using recruiters from every major federal agency that offers job opportunities for specialties ranging from engineering to IT.
"OPM is working hard to recruit new talent so federal agencies can fulfill their requirements to quickly hire the right people with the right skills," said the agency's director, Kay Coles James.
Government officials are also tapping academic centers in search of new talent. Julia Makela, career consultant at George Mason's School of Management, said her program has received a lot of government interest, particularly in the past few months.
"They are looking for candidates," Makela said. "The technical background is very important, especially for those who major in decision sciences and management information systems. They also like students to have an IT minor, a strong business background and an understanding of how technology fits into the picture."
Hastings has been working with AFFIRM to spread the word that there are good jobs in the federal government. Association officials want to work with IT-focused universities to find candidates for federal jobs, he said.
Ira Hobbs, co-chairman of the CIO Council's Workforce and Human Capital for IT Committee, said any managers worth their salt are working on succession planning.
"There is an ongoing effort to recruit," Hobbs said. "There's been enough said and enough documented that managers are conscious of the fact that we need to be planning for the next generation of information professionals, and they are doing so."
There are three specific areas, he said, in which the federal government is looking for new talent: enterprise architecture, security and project management.
"Those are the areas that continue to show up as places where the government has high demands," Hobbs said.
Still, Patrick Schambach, TSA's chief information officer, laments that filling the ranks is a work in progress. "Across government, I see the workforce aging every day," he said. "I don't know what it is going to take to get good workers, but the benefits [the government offers] are pretty good, and they move up in responsibility at a young age."
When Congress created TSA, it also implemented a new type of pay scale known as pay banding. No longer chained to the old pay schedule in which longevity dictated salaries and raises, Schambach can pay his workers based on talent and give them raises based on merit.
"This is an advantage in a modern organization," he said. "It takes pay away from longevity and puts it into performance. I have the flexibility to bring people in, place them where I think they are worth to us and move them up."
That's the case for Anne Ogu, 22, an information and technology specialist at the Department of Veterans Affairs. "It has great benefits, better job security than private industry, good promotional opportunities, flexible work hours and paid holidays," she said. "One thing it does not have are salaries as high as the private sector."
Brian Gwinner, 31, of Bristow, Va., agreed. But he knows firsthand what it's like to feel vulnerable in the private sector because he has a wife and three kids to house and feed as he watched corporate America shrink.
After five uncertain years at Verizon, he became a program manager for IT security at TSA because "the government will never go out of business," he said. "That was the key to my peace of mind: job security."
If Gwinner is indicative of a trend, the troubled economy is one significant reason that younger workers are moving into government. They are attracted by programs that will train them, place them and pay them.
"For a long time, people believed they had stability in other places," said Norman Ornstein, a government scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. "The last four or five years, there's been a real shock. For people who are unemployed or underemployed, or young people looking for careers, a decent job in the federal government looks pretty good."
That certainly is the case for Daniel Hershman, 24. He was recruited to provide computer service and network support for SSA with a guarantee of job advancement and pay raises. Agency officials relocated him to Baltimore from northeastern Ohio, where he had lived, and his new office set up opportunities for professional and social networking.
"My job allows me a lot of autonomy," Hershman said. "I can do my job as I see fit. Whenever I need insight, we can collectively get together."
Soon enough, the IT professionals who have been running the systems for decades will be gone. Some younger workers say that federal managers have an obligation to train a new workforce before they retire, taking years of knowledge and understanding of legacy systems with them.
"The federal government hasn't been all that successful in hiring the 21st-century workforce while having the brains on board," said Colleen Herrmann, 29, who is part of the critical infrastructure protection team at the Navy's Office of the Chief Information Officer. "They really need to start working now on recruiting and retaining the workforce so they can overlap with those who have the brainpower." Herrman said she has worked hard to gain the respect of her colleagues.
"People look at me as an equal," said Shukeshia Herndon, 27, an IT specialist in program management at the General Accounting Office. "I haven't run into any particular situation where I felt belittled or not taken seriously because of my age. I am able to contribute. People have listened. I'm listened to."
There are some problems that need fixing, however. Many IT workers are accustomed to holiday bonuses in the private sector. Others want better maternity leave. And sometimes being the youngest in the office can be a lonely experience. Nevertheless, the next generation is here to stay, and it's time to get used to it, they say.
Last fall, VA Secretary Anthony Principi met 12 new IT interns at the department to sell them on the VA's mission, said Ed Meagher, the agency's acting CIO.
"They are permanent hires," Meagher said. "We are going to find a spot for all of them. We've got to get some new blood because we're all old and tired."