Surprise: Pay alone won't recruit or retain IT workers

Ira Hobbs

At a training session on management a few years back, class members and the instructor spent the better part of two hours brainstorming the characteristics of good and bad managers. On the left side of the board, the instructor chalked up positive traits such as honesty, trustworthiness, fairness, and being organized, flexible, competent and compassionate.

On the right side, she wrote the opposite qualities. At the end of the class, the instructor said simply, 'Now go out and practice the things on the left side of the board and avoid those on the right, and you will be a very good manager indeed.' Easy, eh?

That training session came to mind as I reviewed findings in the National Academy of Public Administration's report on federal information technology recruitment and retention. NAPA recently released the first phase of a three-phase report that will make recommendations to Congress, the Office of Personnel Management and the Office of Management and Budget. Its topic: how the federal government can recruit and retain skilled workers in today's IT labor market.

As co-chairman of the Chief Information Officers Council's IT Workforce Committee, I'and many of my colleagues'anxiously anticipated NAPA's thorough and independent study, which we and the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts requested. The special IT salary increase that went into effect in January is just the first step in our efforts to make the government a much more attractive place of employment for the kinds of highly skilled IT workers we clearly must have, especially in this emerging era of electronic government.

NAPA's research, findings and recommendations, due this summer, are central to our efforts.
Not surprisingly, NAPA's initial research confirms that private industry has many advantages over the federal government in the recruitment and retention battle. These include stock options and more lucrative signing and referral bonuses.

Another lesson is that the private sector has moved away from a civil service approach to compensation to one emphasizing pay-for-performance and keeping up with the competition. Yet another trend in many organizations, including state and local governments, is innovation in recruiting and retaining IT workers, where cash compensation is not the only factor.

The NAPA report stated, 'One trend that is important to all employment sectors is the desire for challenging work in a supportive environment.' IT workers want exposure to new technologies and career advancement opportunities, backed up by solid training programs.

Family-friendly benefits, flexible work schedules, good working relationships with competent supervisors and co-workers, and meaningful recognition for both individual and team performance are also important. Those amount to motherhood-and-apple pie items that, unfortunately, government too often lacks. NAPA reports that these are 'nonpay benefits that can close the gap for those organizations that are unable to offer lucrative, high-paying compensation packages.'

In that respect, IT workers are just like everybody else. Like the aforementioned exercise in my management training class, NAPA's initial work has reconfirmed what we should all already have known: IT workers want to be treated as though they and their families are truly valued, not just as employees, but as people.

Ira Hobbs is acting chief information officer at the Agriculture Department and a member of the CIO Council.


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