Government service has value for IT force

Government service has value for IT force

For some federal technology workers the bottom line is pay, for others it's purpose

BY RICHARD W. WALKER | GCN STAFF

Talk to a dozen federal computer specialists, and you'll hear a dozen different tales from the front lines of the government's information technology work force.

What they have in common is a vantage point. As the higher-ups try to conjure ways to meet the government's computer work force challenges, the IT folks have a ground-level view of the key issues.

Scaling the wall

Pay is widely seen as the government's biggest impediment to recruiting and retaining IT specialists. It just can't match industry salaries, they say.

But for many federal careerists, there's more to work for than money.

'Most of my family and friends think me quite strange for not working on Wall Street or someplace like that and making a lot of money,' said Stuart Kieffer, a computer specialist in the chief information officer's office at the Agriculture Department.

Kieffer, a 34-year-old GS-14 with a background in computer engineering, arrived at USDA two years ago after working in the private sector as a database application developer for a banking information company in New York. He left that job to pursue a degree in public policy and then went into government IT work.

'I decided there was more to what I was looking for in a career than just a paycheck,' he said. 'I also felt the government was getting more organized with regard to the IT experience. It was right around the time when the [CIO] Council was new and the CIO was a fairly new position, so I targeted CIOs in the CIO Council in my job search.'

What Kieffer was seeking was 'some kind of higher purpose. I think that's where the government comes into play.'

But he wouldn't say it was entirely animated by altruism. There were other factors.
'At USDA, the level of responsibility and the size and scope of the projects that we're working on are great,' he said. 'These are opportunities that would be more difficult to come by in the private sector. There are a lot of organizational dynamics [in government] that come into play that I hadn't experienced before. I was looking for that kind of learning opportunity.'

Other young IT workers also extolled the work ambience in government.

'I feel it's more of a teamwork environment,' said Kurt Scales, a 29-year-old GS-11 computer specialist who works in database administration at USDA's National Finance Center in New Orleans. 'People are willing to help you more. In the private sector people are looking out for themselves.'

Gerald Spears, also in his late 20s and a GS-12 computer specialist in NFC's Information Resource Management Division, likes the comparative stability of government work.

'It's a little more stable than private industry, where you get all these mergers and takeovers,' he said. 'I don't know too many people who like to continually switch jobs.'

Both Spears and Scales will get raises under the Office of Personnel Management's new special salary rates for IT professionals, which took effect this month.

For them, the pay hike was a huge morale booster.

It's progress

'I really appreciated it,' Spears said. 'Although it still may not be up to private industry standards, it's a great step forward.'
'A lot of people here are happy that the government is making a move to try to keep younger employees here,' Scales said.
Scales believes that the government will someday be able to compete with industry for IT employees by offering more attractive benefits packages and options such as flex-time and telecommuting'in addition to higher wages.

'I feel it's eventually going to level out between government and private industry,' he said. 'It may not be soon, but eventually government will have to make moves to keep up.'

One of those moves may have to do with how workers are hired. The government's lengthy and burdensome hiring process remains an obstruction to attracting IT recruits.

It took Kieffer, for instance, five months to get hired at Agriculture.

'It was the standard government hiring process where you respond to the [knowledge, skills and abilities requirements] and the position description,' he said. 'It wasn't that responding to the KSAs or the PD was so cumbersome, but it was just so time consuming and difficult to understanding where I was in the process. I think it constrains the ability to hire good talent when you have all these bureaucratic restraints in the way.'

Another IT professional who found the federal hiring process frustrating is Timothy Beauchamp, a Navy veteran with a nuclear engineering background.

Last year, already working for the government as a systems administrator for the U.S. Courts in Tulsa, Okla., Beauchamp ran into roadblocks when he decided to pursue a systems position at the federal Court of Appeals in Washington.
'One of the things that irritated me most was having to fill out the KSAs,' he said. 'There's a ton of paperwork. It's ridiculous.'

After several months of waiting and with a growing sense that he really wasn't being considered for the job, Beauchamp was informed that someone else had been hired. Meanwhile, he also had applied for systems positions at several other agencies and was turned down.

Private victory

He finally gave up and started looking for a private-sector job. It took him only two weeks to land a position as a systems support specialist at an association in Washington.

'I got snapped up immediately,' he said. 'I filled out an application, sent my resume in and got hired. That's vs. all the hoops you have to jump through to get a government job.'

The perception that working for the government means being snarled in bureaucratic processes and a web of regulations appears to be widespread among college computer science majors'a target pool for government recruiters.

'The general consensus among my peers about government is the workflow is slow, and it doesn't tend to be on the cutting edge,' said a recent graduate of the University of Maryland, College Park's highly regarded Computer Science Department.

The graduate, who works for a Web development firm in Washington and asked not to be identified by name, got a taste of government work when she interned at NASA as an undergraduate.

'I didn't care for government work,' she said. 'It was very bureaucratic. It was meetings, meetings, meetings. I found it took longer to get things done.'

'It seems like with the federal government there's a lot more bureaucracy and stricter rules,' said Donovan Campbell, a graduating senior in computer science at Maryland who plans to work in the private sector or start his own company. 'People want to work jobs that are more convenient, especially given that the telecommuting sector is growing so much. People want to be able to connect to the office remotely, and I think the private sector is staying more competitive by offering those kinds of flexible jobs.'

Pay counts

And then there's the salary issue.

'Absolutely, salary is a concern,' said the recent Maryland grad who requested anonymity. 'There's more money in the private sector. And for some computer science students, that's what it's really about'the money.'

Campbell agreed. 'I think a lot of students want to be able to negotiate for higher salaries and demonstrate that they deserve to be paid a certain amount of money,' he said. 'It seems like the government is more formal. A job offers x amount of dollars for a certain grade level.'

For government, it seems, the issue often comes back to the money.

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