Workers stay put'but for how long?
- By Rob Thormeyer
- Sep 23, 2005
'As the economy continues to grow, it will be harder for us to compete.'
'Tom Pyke, Commerce Department CIO
The rate of IT retirements remains low, but are agencies ready for an aging workforce's next steps?
At the job fair, 'we were competing with a lot of other agencies that had more to offer.'
' Gloria Parker, HUD's former CTO
Fear of the inevitable brain drain'the mass retirement of federal IT baby boomers'forced the government a few years ago to drastically alter how it recruits, hires and rewards new and existing talent.
Whether these changes are working over the long haul to entice young IT workers into the government while also retaining those considering the private sector remains to be seen. But a new report suggests agencies have, at least for now, staved off a crisis.
'The anticipated dip in the federal IT workforce hasn't materialized in the way we thought it would,' said Bob Cohen, spokesman for the Information Technology Association of America of Arlington, Va.
The Office of Personnel Management projects that out of the 61,821 federal employees making up the General Schedule 2210 classification'OPM's series for most federal IT workers'approximately 8,460 will retire through 2008.
'The government has not had a difficulty in hiring, period,' said Marta Perez, OPM's associate director of human capital leadership.
While the numbers are always subject to change, they certainly paint a brighter picture than the mass-exodus, doom-and-gloom predictions of the recent past.
In late 2001, for example, the National Academy of Public Administration in Washington reported that not only was the federal IT workforce aging, nearly 50 percent of them were eligible for retirement through 2007.Difficult recruitment
NAPA concluded that the big pay gap between private and public service'not to mention the lengthy federal hiring process'would not only encourage more IT workers to leave government but also prevent the feds from recruiting top-notch young talent.
ITAA, in its 15th Annual Survey of Federal CIOs released in February, cited the 'wave of expected retirements' as a chief concern for the IT workforce.
The departures will leave huge gaps in experience levels, 'especially at the middle management level,' ITAA concluded, and the government might not have the tools to replenish the workforce.
But why were the exodus fears never realized?
While there is no solid answer, many experts cited the dot-com bust and resulting economic downturn that not only convinced many potential retirees to stick around longer, but also opened the door for people who had lost private-sector jobs.
'You can't go out into the dot-coms and make $100,000 like [people] thought they could,' Prerez said.
Many officials worry that the cycle is about to repeat, with the private sector again drawing away workers. 'As the economy continues to grow, it will be harder for us to compete,' said Tom Pyke, CIO of the Commerce Department.
But agencies over the past few years have rethought how they hire and recruit IT workers.
Through programs initiated by the CIO Council and OPM, government officials and outside observers say Uncle Sam has taken steps to bolster and retain its existing IT workforce.
'I think we have a government- wide effort in assessing our workforce needs. I think that helps,' Pyke said.
Perez agreed, saying that work force assessments 'require agencies to pay attention to what we consider to be important.'
Others cited new recruiting techniques approved by OPM'such as signing bonuses, quicker background checks and giving agencies direct-hiring authority'as well as a sense of civic duty as having helped attract new workers.
OPM in 2003 gave agencies direct-hiring authority for IT security professionals, a move intended to accelerate the cumbersome federal hiring process.
Before that, OPM and the CIO Council held a virtual job fair in April 2002 that participants said almost revolutionized the federal hiring process.
The job fair was hosted on OPM's www.usajobs.opm.gov
Web site and let agencies post openings and sift through applications from qualified candidates who had passed a few prescreening tests.
Those participating in the job fair said it was a major success. The State Department, in particular, hired 60 employees, and while some other agencies did not have as much luck, most agreed it changed the hiring process.
'Security clearing is always problematic,' a State spokeswoman said.
But the job fair required agencies to perform background checks concurrent with the interview process, resulting in an expedited system, she said.
After the job fair, 'we invited [candidates] in for interviews, we had them go through the security clearance and offered the job on the spot, pending the security clearance,' the spokeswoman said. It is 'absolutely unprecedented for State to do it this way.'
But not all agencies had the same results.
Gloria Parker, former chief technology officer at the Housing and Urban Development Department, said that HUD had difficulty competing with the resources of other agencies.
'We attempted to hire' from the job fair, 'but the problem is that we were competing with a lot of other agencies that had more to offer,' Parker said.
HUD's situation was not unique.
While the job fair attracted a lot of talent, many agencies simply did not have the budget to hire the candidates they wanted, said John Palguta, vice president of policy and research at the Partnership for Public Service.
And therein lies a fundamental problem'while OPM has equipped the government with the tools needed to attract IT workers, using them is up to individual agencies.
'If the agency wants to use some of the incentives OPM has to offer, it usually works in their favor,' said Parker, who left HUD in April and is now a senior vice president of business development and strategy at Apptis Inc. of Chantilly, Va.
If not, the government does not necessarily face a brain drain crisis but rather a constant turnover within. Government may be doing a better job retaining IT workers, 'but they're moving around more than they would if they worked for the private sector,' PPS' Palguta said.
Because IT workers generally possess skills that are transferable throughout government, if a particular individual finds their work dull or their agency unsupportive, they can and will move around.
In certain civilian agencies, 'there is very little training and very little opportunity for people to grow,' said John C. Reece, former CIO at the IRS.
Parker said she witnessed many employees move to other agencies.
'With any job, if you are not treated well but have very strong skills, it's easy to take those skills and move on,' she said.
While no officials would publicly or privately list agencies losing IT workers, most said the State and Commerce departments were examples of two agencies retaining and aggressively recruiting their IT workforce.
Commerce, for example, is looking to hire 376 IT employees over the next two years, according to the Partnership's study released in February.
Pyke said that of the estimated 3,000 IT workers in Commerce, the department anticipates losing about 3 percent each year. Through signing bonuses on a case-by-case basis and an 'exciting' workload, Commerce is 'working aggressively' to recruit new talent, he said.
Of course, Pyke said, Commerce also is outsourcing a sizable chunk of its IT work to the private sector, a practice common throughout government. Of its $1.5 billion annual IT budget, Pyke said $1.1 billion is contracted out.
And outsourcing brings up the age-old problem the government has always faced'how to attract IT talent from the private sector.