Finding IT professionals can be a full-time job

Finding IT professionals can be a full-time job

By Merry Mayer

Special to GCN

W. Frederick Thompson

At Treasury, he's on the front lines of the effort to recruit and keep top-notch IT workers.

When W. Frederick Thompson began his job 18 months ago, it was to help build the Treasury Department's next-generation information technology work force, a task that could affect 9,300 employees. But his purview may soon expand to some 150,000 workers.

His title is program manager for information technology work force improvement at Treasury. The mission is to find better ways to recruit, retain and develop the skills of IT personnel. The challenge, considering the competition from industry for a limited pool of talent, is considerable.

Officially, his position is a new one. Before Thompson, an executive on loan from the IRS held the post.

And with computer systems becoming a more integral part of how the department's various agencies work, Thompson's mission is expanding beyond the IT work force to include the computer skills and training of non-IT workers as well.

Opening doors

"We haven't made a whole lot of progress yet, but we will soon be looking at tailoring a program to meet that community," he said.

Before taking the job, Thompson had been director for advanced technology in IRS' School of Information Technology. There, he introduced several distance-learning programs, including interactive satellite teletraining.

A typical day for Thompson begins by checking his voice mail before he leaves his house. "There usually isn't anything on it, but by the time I get in, there are three or four telephone messages and four or five e-mails," he said.

Because he usually works on four or five projects simultaneously, the workday starts with figuring what priority to give each task and how much progress should be made.

He typically has two or three meetings a day and must do a lot of shifting between governmentwide initiatives and Treasury projects, he said.

His biggest challenge is keeping in contact with the various federal agencies involved in the governmentwide initiativeswhich include cooperative training and recruitment effortson which he can spend only 15 to 20 percent of his time. "I need to network with enough people to have an impact," he said.

Half of his time is devoted to Treasury-only projects, with the rest spent on overlapping efforts, he said.

He describes his work within Treasury as requiring communication and empathy. "I serve as a bridge between human resources and the IT functions, which many times have very different concerns," he said.

IT managers have a difficult time concentrating on personnel problems when faced with more immediate concerns. "We have tried to elevate the issue for them," Thompson said.

That is vital because the government faces an IT worker shortage that, Thompson said, is only going to get worse.

The outlook has changed rapidly, especially with the expansion of the Internet. In 1993, the federal government hired two out of three of its IT workers from the private sector; by 1997 it was hiring just one out of eight from that source, he said.

More and more, the federal government shuffles its IT workers between departments and between IT and non-IT jobs.

About 40 percent of Treasury's IT workers have a college degree and only 13 percent hold an IT-related degree.

The percentages are well below the department's general work force, where 55 percent of workers have a college degree or higher.

Then, consider that the average IT worker's age at Treasury is 44, and that there are more technical employees over 55 years of age than there are under 30. The gap is likely to widen because resignation rates are highest among the youngest workers, Thompson said.

As for his own career, Thompson said he has had no doubts about staying in government.

His only private-sector experience was working for his dad, who managed a lawnmower and small engine parts warehouse, during summers in college. "The boxes were too heavy, and the boss was too tough," he said.

In the future, Thompson said, the federal government should pay more attention to IT-related certificationsbut not necessarily degreesin making new hires. How they will be able to get these people and then retain them is the challenge.

Money is only one hurdle the government faces in attracting and keeping skilled IT workers.

Offering training would be one more plus in government's favor, Thompson said.

"Development of staff is incredibly important. We need to invest in them and let them know we are investing in them," he said.

The issue of salary must be addressed on a governmentwide basis, he said.

Merry Mayer is a free-lance writer in Chicago.


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