Feds in the trenches

Feds in the trenches

By Richard W. Walker

GCN Staff

Budget cuts, downsizing, less-than-competitive pay scales, the capricious political crosscurrents of Washington all these factors add up to a big brain drain on the federal information technology work force.

And it's only going to get worse, predicted W. Frederick Thompson, program manager for IT work force improvement at the Treasury Department.

Thompson cites a startling statistic: In 1993, two out of three IT workers hired by the federal government came from private industry. Four years later, it was just one in eight. What is to be done?

Those in the federal IT trenches, such as Thompson, have a frontline perspective on the IT work force shortage.

For Thompson, training is one key to attracting and keeping IT workers.'"Development of staff is incredibly important," he said. "We need to invest in them and let them know we are investing in them."

Regina Lawrence, year 2000 project manager and IRM coordinator at the Interior Department's Office of Surface Mining, has been toiling in the federal IT trenches for 30 years.

Lawrence said her varied government experience, with several agencies and the District of Columbia government, has been invaluable. It equipped her with the skills, particularly on a managerial level, to cope with year 2000 date code headaches.

She's not about to give up her government career to go into the private sector or at least not quite yet.

"I now have 30 years of service," she said. "I am 48. I would like to get my full benefits. I am so close to being able to retire with full benefits. I wouldn't want to lose that."

But the prospect of working in the private sector after retiring from federal service does hold intererst for her, over the horizon. "Now, after my time, I can go out into private industry," she said.

What can government do to keep IT professionals, especially younger ones who are nowhere near retirement? Lawrence offered some ideas.

"Treat people fairly," she said. "If they're creative, let them think outside the box. Don't always be so structured because a lot of people have good ideas."

One more thing: "Pay us. But that's another issue."

Another issue indeed. It is perhaps the issue.

A recent Chief Information Officers Council report, Meeting the Federal IT Work Force Challenge, noted "a serious discrepancy" in IT salary levels between the federal government and the private sector.

But the report stopped short of recommending any concrete proposals on pay, pending the results of an Office of Personnel Management study on the federal IT work force, due out this month.

Salary certainly is a big thing, but it isn't everything.

Gabrielle James, the General Services Administration's contracting officer for the Seat Management Program, worked in the private sector before starting her government career.'She says it didn't suit her.

James was put off by private industry's rigid work schedules.

"It wasn't flexible enough for my family obligations," she said. "I get that with the government and have received promotions based on the broad experience I've gained."

James also likes the spontaneity of her job at GSA there's no such thing as a routine day, she said. "It keeps things interesting."

Ready for duty

At Camp Lejeune, N.C., Maj. Lance Bryant, an information systems management officer and 16-year veteran of the Marine Corps, also enjoys the flexibility and independence that go along with his job.

"I have a lot more autonomy than guys I know in the civilian world," he said.

Some IT officials said there's something else in government work that you cannot get in the private sector: pride in public service.

"I believe it takes time to gain appreciation for public service, to fully understand that what you do really does make a difference," said David Wolf, geospatial data manager at the Environmental Protection Agency's Office of IRM.

"Unfortunately, younger federal employees may be lured away from government by compensation commensurate with their talents and not tied to shrinking budgets, politics or personnel limitations before they realize this," he said.

Wolf said he looks at the sharp young people working in government IT and wonders, "What's going to keep them here?"

His view: "To get and retain good people, the federal government is going to have to do more creative compensation."

Edwin Kincaid, IT manager at the Oklahoma City Air Center at Tinker Air Force Base, has put in 22 years of government service.

He said he believes that working for the government has much to offer IT professionals.

"The government has it all, from old mainframes and Cobol flat-file systems to the latest in IT," he said.

"It provides a training environment that you cannot get anywhere else, and you can be given responsibility very quickly," he added.

Kincaid said he has found that Oklahoma is at somewhat of a geographic disadvantage when it comes to attracting IT professionals. "The technology fields are concentrated along the East and West coasts," he said. "So here in Oklahoma we have to do something extra to get qualified personnel."

He is working with universities and vendors in the state to develop training classes built around product data management technologies.

Not just a job

Kincaid said he likes his job so much he considers it his hobby. 'My job and my hobby give me an opportunity to see the latest in IT and understand how it works and how we can apply it to the environment," he said.

With feds such as Kincaid stoking the fires of enthusiasm, maybe there is still hope that the government's IT work force drain can be checked.


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