2001: Year of the human factor

2001: Year of the human factor

Feds develop plans to compete for IT workers

BY RICHARD W. WALKER AND

TONY LEE ORR
| GCN STAFF

Here's a true story.

A Navy nuclear submarine veteran and information technology specialist working for the federal government in the Midwest wants to find a government job in Washington. He spends months pursuing openings, filling out mountains of paperwork and going to interviews that seem to lead nowhere. Finally, he gives up and tries the private sector.

In two weeks, he lands a job as a systems support specialist at a trade association in Washington.
Though he had really wanted to continue his government career, he says the experience was so frustrating that he's not likely to look for another government job unless there are serious reforms to the system.

It happened last year, and it underscores some of the barriers government faces in recruiting and retaining IT workers. Salary is, of course, a big hurdle, but so is bureaucracy. And nothing screams
'bureaucracy' louder than labyrinthine application
procedures that can'and often do'inadvertently drive away people who otherwise would choose to work for the government.


Government jobs can have a significant impact on life in this country, Agriculture deputy CIO Ira Hobbs says.


IT is an employee's market. And government isn't the only sector having trouble rounding up enough good employees'private industry also finds itself watching IT workers come and go through a revolving door. But private companies have well-documented advantages over government in pay, bonuses and other incentives. They also have simpler hiring processes'in fact, two of the private-sector employees interviewed for these stories were hired over the phone, without face-to-face interviews.

As a result, the government struggles to find and retain IT workers while implementing a number of ambitious projects.

But although agencies have been at a disadvantage, and stories such as the Navy veteran's aren't unusual, the government is starting to make significant strides on the IT work force front.
Government IT and personnel leaders have awakened to the problem and are doing something about it.

'We're starting to turn around this Goliath'the federal government'and now we're picking up steam in addressing IT work force issues,' said Ira Hobbs, deputy chief information officer at the Agriculture Department and co-chairman of the Chief Information Officers Council's IT Work Force Committee.

'Two years ago, the IT work force wasn't really an issue on the government agenda. All of a sudden, the CIO Council said, 'Hey, this is an important issue and nothing's being done about it.' So we started banging on the door of the Office of Personnel Management. Pretty soon they agreed that this was a major issue for them, too.'

Last November, OPM officials took a major step forward when they established higher pay rates for IT workers at at occupational grades GS-5 through GS-12.

The new rates, which took effect this month, cover current and newly hired employees classified as computer specialists (GS-334), computer engineers (GS-854) and computer scientists (GS-1550).
Most of those affected get pay increases of 7 percent to 33 percent.

The hike doesn't cover IT workers at grade GS-13 or above because, OPM officials said, the most severe staffing problems are at the lower grades. The special schedules primarily are a compensation tool to help agencies recruit employees for entry-level positions.

Hobbs said that turnover at lower grades runs up to 30 percent per year, while at higher grades it remains below 3 percent.

Agency administrators told OPM that without higher pay rates they would have a tougher time recruiting entry-level employees to replace rising numbers of retiring workers in the future.
And those numbers are startling. In about five years, about 50 to 60 percent of federal IT workers will be eligible for retirement, Hobbs said.

'That doesn't mean they will retire but it does mean they will have met the eligibility requirement for retirement,' he said.
Officials agree that increasing pay for all federal technology workers should be a long-term goal.

'The new special salary rate program is a first step,' Hobbs said. 'I wish we could have been in a position to cover all of our IT professionals. But that card just wasn't in the deck at this point in time.'

But Hobbs said he was optimistic that the CIO Council and OPM will continue to collaborate on identifying other grade levels and IT occupations that warrant increases in pay.

Nevertheless, Hobbs and other federal employees working on IT staffing issues realize that government will never be able to match industry salaries, especially at higher job levels.

'Are we ever going to be able to pay a salary of $275,000 to a Cisco [Systems Inc.] engineer? Probably not. That's more than the president of the U.S. makes,' he said. 'But not everybody is a Cisco engineer making that kind of money. We can be competitive 'at lower grade levels.

Officials know that they will have to sell recruits on other aspects of working for government.


'If you're looking to get leadership responsibility and to be in charge of large projects that have a significant impact on life in this country, the government is your kind of employer.' 'AGRICULTURE DEPUTY CIO IRA HOBBS


'We may not be as cutting edge in terms of the salaries the private sector is offering, but there are other things we can emphasize,' Hobbs said.
'For example, we believe that the government is very employee-friendly. And if you're looking to get leadership responsibility and to be in charge of large projects that have a significant impact on life in this country, the government is your kind of employer.'

Recruiters also should more enthusiastically tout the government's training and education programs, comprehensive benefits and insurance packages and 'family friendly' options such as telecommuting, Hobbs said.

'We haven't done a very good job in highlighting these incentives to prospective employees,' he said.

Some good, old-fashioned marketing would go a long way to bringing in talent, said Frederick Thompson, program manager for IT work force improvement in the Treasury Department's Office of Information Technology Policy and Management.

Sell these jobs

'Government needs to sell the work that it does,' he said. 'We keep trying to make it like a business, but we still need to focus on what we do. A lot of people want to work on something bigger than themselves. Put together decent pay, give employees something to work on, keep them excited and train them, and you've got a package you can sell.'

While such pitches may help attract technology workers, the government's complex and often protracted hiring process remains an obstacle to bringing them aboard.

'We used to be able to get [computer specialist] 334s out of college without a problem,' said Jerry Lohfink, deputy director of the Agriculture Department's National Finance Center in New Orleans. 'Now we don't have a chance. Quite honestly, it's because of the hiring process.'

That rare recruit

Lohfink said his agency rarely recruits at student job fairs anymore. 'We never get anybody,' he said. 'We say to a recruit, 'It's only February so hopefully we'll know something [about your job status] by June.' PricewaterhouseCoopers tells the recruit, 'You'll get your bonus in two weeks and as soon as you're out of school, you're hired.' We can't compete with those kinds of commitments.'
For Hobbs, this is an old story.

'Clearly, speed to seat is an important piece,' he said. 'When we compare ourselves to industry's ability to hire and bring folks in, we realize that we're losing candidates.'

At Treasury, Thompson doesn't think it's a good idea to move toward a hiring process that is as fast as the private sector's.

But he does believe that that government should streamline the process. A hiring process that can take the better part of a year is unreasonable, he said.

'Cutting the time involved in the hiring process to three or four weeks would still give personnel managers time to perform background checks, testing and extensive interviews, but won't keep potential hires on the hook so long that they get annoyed and turn to the private sector,' he said.
Keeping IT professionals on board once they've been hired represents another major challenge for government.

At the National Finance Center, Lohfink recently lost two computer security specialists, each with more than 20 years of federal service, to industry.

'That's normally an area where you're not going to lose them,' he said. 'They usually wait to get their 25 years and then they may bolt. To leave just a couple of years short of being vested for retirement is very unusual. But financially they couldn't refuse. The private sector is paying them, quite honestly, about double what we could pay them.'

Retention bonuses may be a remedy.

'If we could step up when the private sector makes an attractive offer and be able to, not match it of course, but offer [workers] something in the financial realm to go with the stability of working for government, it would work wonders,' Lohfink said. 'Most 334s here have a high degree of job satisfaction. We need to give them something to offset that tantalizing set of green in front of them.'

Treasury is using retention incentives to encourage tech staff to stick around, having learned from the IRS' year 2000 experience that they work, Thompson said.

The IRS found 10 percent retention incentives particularly helpful in keeping staff essential to complete year 2000 renovation work, he said.

Treasury also is seeking ways to make sure that technology workers don't become bored in their jobs.

Take a spin

One strategy is to rotate them through a variety of positions so that they remain challenged.

'Agencies often lose good hires because managers fail to develop their talents,' Thompson said. 'The new hire gets bored and leaves. A department failing to develop employees can find itself with a revolving door at the personnel office.'

Treasury officials are hoping eventually to spend 3 percent of payroll on helping high-tech employees improve their skills.

Departmentwide, Treasury currently spends just over 2 percent of payroll on employee development, Thompson said, although some bureaus and divisions, such as the Secret Service and the Bureau of the Public Debt, are hitting the 3 percent mark.

In addition, the department puts some of its IT workers through its Executive Potential Program, allowing those employees with management experience the opportunity to gain some executive experience within Treasury, he said.

Still another answer for the government's IT staffing problem is outsourcing'but only up to a point.

One tool

'Outsourcing is part of the remedy but it's not the whole remedy,' Hobbs cautioned. 'Every manager has a toolbox and outsourcing is one of those tools in the toolbox. There are certain jobs where it makes good management and financial sense to outsource.'

'But you can't outsource mission, and you can't outsource the responsibility that taxpayers and Congress have entrusted to you. You're going to need the IT professional to help you do that.'

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