Feds seek ways to keep and hire IT employees

Feds seek ways to keep and hire IT employees

IRS' Paul Cosgrave

Lacking job incentives industry can offer, agencies explore other methods to attract systems workers

By Christopher J. Dorobek

GCN Staff

The government is not content to take what it can get when it comes to information technology employees. So agencies are getting creative as they struggle with a dearth of systems workers.

The sparse IT work force has pushed some agencies'at least those with hiring authority'to search for better ways to find and retain people.

Without the fabled lavish signing bonuses and stock options industry can offer, agencies have to take a different approach to finding highly skilled workers.

'We need to create systems to not only attract the people but keep them,' State Department deputy chief information officer Pat Popovich said.

Agencies are streamlining the application process, posting jobs online and targeting demographics that are often overlooked.

Many large agencies are at the forefront of what experts suggest will be a growing problem. In fact, the IT work force shortage is affecting only a handful of agencies.

'Treasury has not been recruiting IT employees heavily,' said Fred Thompson, program manager for Treasury's IT work force improvement program. The department's attrition rate was 6 percent to 9 percent from 1993 to 1997. The IRS, which has been aggressively using retention pay for some programmers, has reduced its IT staff attrition to less than 4 percent.

Many agencies, still reeling from budget cuts and downsizing, have not hired new employees in years, some government officials said.

'We don't have a lot of authority to hire a bunch of new people,' said Housing and Urban Development Department CIO Gloria R. Parker, who also serves as co-chairwoman of the CIO Council's Education and Training Committee.

What's going down?

HUD has been through a significant downsizing. 'We've had a high attrition rate and we've not had the authority to backfill very much of that,' she said. 'We're losing a lot of people.'

Last month, GSA announced it will conduct a reduction in force in its Federal Supply Service. Although the cuts are not exclusively in IT areas, officials said such staff cuts ripple through an organization. It is difficult to hire IT staff while cutting staff in another part of the agency, officials said.

The result is that there is a significant void of entry-level IT staff members, officials said. 'Throughout the federal government, we are missing this demographic of entry-level people who will become the leaders of the agencies,' GSA CIO William J. Piatt said.

'Our real challenge is ahead of us, when large numbers of IT workers become eligible for retirement and begin to retire,' Thompson said. Therefore, Treasury is 'devoting considerable attention to re-establishing intake programs so that we will be ready for that challenge,' he said.

One way to attract entry-level workers is salary, officials acknowledged. 'Salary is a big part of it,' Popovich said.

IRS CIO Paul Cosgrave said the government is never going to compete head-to-head with companies. 'Where we can't be competitive, we at least have to be in the ball game,' he said.

As agency executives await a proposal on IT salaries from the CIO Council and the Office of Personnel Management, they have stepped up their recruitment efforts by traveling to job fairs, streamlining the hiring process, expanding training budgets and posting jobs online.

Agencies, however, have found they need a coordinated effort. Treasury's Financial Management Service has produced a multimedia presentation to attract students. While the presentation did attract young people to the booth, FMS could not hire many of them quickly enough.

'By the time the bureau was ready to give a job offer, that prospective employee had already been snatched up by a company that could offer them an immediate position,' said Dagne Fulcher, a staff member in Treasury's IT Work Force Improvement Program.

Popovich said State has worked to streamline its hiring process. 'We're doing everything we can to speed up the process,' she said.

Would-be State foreign service employees must pass a board of examiners test. Previously, the tests could take six to eight weeks, but the department has been able to cut that down to one day, she said.

Furthermore, State is doing mobile testing, she said. In some cases, State has even made a conditional job offer on the spot.

Linda Wallace, chief of IRS electronic information services and a member of the Education and Training Committee, said the IRS has also been active in seeking candidates online. The IRS is using CareerSite.com, an online service run by CareerSite Corp. of Ann Arbor, Mich., and CareerMosaic.com run by CareerMosaic Inc. of New York to post jobs online.

The postings have yielded more qualified candidates, she said.

Cosgrave said training is also key to attracting and keeping a high-tech work force. The industry is changing so quickly workers want to maintain their skills, he said. To that end, the IRS has increased its training budget from $4 million to $11 million, he said.

The government has been better than the private sector about focusing on groups that have been underrepresented in the work force, he said.

'We have to focus on the notion of expanding the work force so we are more representative of the population as a whole,' Cosgrave said.


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