Recruiting, management policies on front burner
- By Richard W. Walker
- Nov 12, 2002
'You have to have a partnership with your HR counterparts,' Agriculture Deputy CIO Ira Hobbs says. 'That's where the workplace issues are going to be decided.'
Janet Barnes, OPM CIO
Deputy CIO Laura Callahan says Labor uses its FAIR Act list to find a balance between department and contract employees.
Henrik G. DeGyor
'It is almost impossible to recruit lower-level positions,' says Commerce CIO Tom Pyke. 'The solution is outsourcing.'
Last April the Office of Personnel Management and the federal CIO Council collaborated on a modest pilot project to demonstrate a new approach to recruiting and hiring federal IT workers.
Organizers initially toyed with the idea of staging a conventional job fair, along the lines of two fruitful IT job fairs the State Department had put on back in 1999. But they decided to do it online instead.
'We said, 'If we can't do this and we're IT people, how could we expect anybody else to make it happen?' ' said Patricia Popovich, State's deputy CIO for management and customer service.
The virtual IT job fair proved surprisingly successful. The site was swamped with 20,000 applications for about 270 positions. Applicants were put through an online screening process and 'the cream rose to the top,' Popovich said.
State made about 130 job offers within several weeks of the event. The agency's first hire was on board within three weeks.
'That's unheard of in government,' Popovich said. Six months is the current average time for hiring federal employees.
Agencies' efforts toward streamlined hiring processes and incentive programs'under way for some time now'also are likely to become more urgent. With Republicans sweeping to control of both houses of Congress in this month's election, a homeland security bill seems certain. The Bush administration has called civil service reforms a priority and is expected to make the new department an incubator for its plans.
The protracted and cumbersome hiring process is one of the government's biggest IT work force problems. It discourages and frustrates applicants and keeps top IT talent away from government. And it's a major headache for federal managers struggling to fill yawning IT vacancies.
But the virtual job fair demo showed what's possible.
'We see this as a model for all future hiring in the government,' Popovich said. 'This has so much potential that it's like a cherry tree waiting to be picked.'A new tradition
Laura Callahan, deputy CIO at the Labor Department and co-chair of the CIO Council's Workforce and Human Capital for IT Committee, agreed. 'It was remarkable event as far as breaking through some of the traditional [recruitment and hiring] practices,' she said. 'We're very hopeful it can be leveraged as a practice of the future.'
On a symbolic level, the job fair pilot showed that at least one element of the government's IT human-capital crisis can be dealt with efficaciously. And it can be done without time-consuming legislative or regulatory tweaking.
'As a model or a pilot it certainly proved that the government could have a streamlined, effective and efficient hiring process,' said Myra Shiplett, director of the National Academy of Public Administration's Center for Human Resource Management. 'Clearly, there are things that can be done within the current mechanisms.'
'You don't have to twist, turn or stretch anything,' Popovich said. 'It's flexible. You just need to know the rules and be able to do it. It's not a difficult process.'
Salary and overall compensation are other matters. A sweeping modernization of the federal pay system is high on OPM's agenda, but such a transformation will require fundamental changes in civil service law and procedures.
In A Fresh Start for Federal Pay: the Case for Modernization, an 82-page white paper published earlier this year, OPM pressed the case for a new pay system that reflects market salaries and links pay to performance.
OPM wants to throw out the 52-year-old General Schedule pay system established by the Classification Act of 1949, at a time when 70 percent of federal white-collar jobs were clerical.
Since then, 'federal white-collar work has become highly skilled and increasingly specialized 'knowledge work' that is properly classified at higher grade levels,' such as GS-11 through GS-13, the white paper states.
But OPM officials said the white paper was intended only 'to trigger a broad conversation' about pay modernization'one they hope will lead to consensus on a new market-based system.
That's the future. What about now? How much can be done within the current system? A fair amount, experts say.
In 2000, OPM established special salary rates for all GS-334 (computer specialist), GS-854 (computer engineer) and GS-1550 (computer scientist) positions at grades GS-5, GS-7, GS-9, GS-11 and GS-12.
The new rates, which took effect last year, produced overall net pay increases of 7 percent to 33 percent for the 33,000 employees in the covered positions.
OPM has since reclassified GS-334 positions into a new GS-2210 IT management occupational series, which breaks jobs into 10 specialties. OPM expects agencies to complete their GS-334 reclassification into the new job family by January.
'The new rates have been very helpful,' Popovich said. 'It makes you a little more competitive with the private sector.'
She added that State uses recruitment bonuses of up to 25 percent'the maximum allowed under current law'as an additional incentive to talented job applicants.
But government really can't compete with the private sector on salary, right? That's the perception.No contest
Ira Hobbs, the Agriculture Department's deputy CIO and co-chair of the CIO Council IT work committee, said it's not the reality.
'Government does compete in some areas,' he said. 'It's not a question of all or nothing. In some of our midlevel positions, at the GS-12 to GS-14 level, we are comparable salarywise to industry.' Base salary rates for those grades range from about $50,000 to $90,000 annually.
'I definitely think government can compete with the private sector,' agreed Edward DeSeve, a member of the National Academy of Public Administration panel that last year issued a landmark report on federal IT work force transformation.
'I know what a senior manager at a midlevel consulting firm makes, and it's not much more than somewhere around a GS-15, Step 10 salary [$107,357 under fiscal 2002 rates],' said DeSeve, managing principal of Governmentum Partners LLC of Washington and former deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget.
'On a pay basis, with a reasonable bonus of about 15 percent to 20 percent, you can match the compensation on the outside'especially now that stock options are a less-attractive part of a [private-sector] package,' he said.
Government also can be competitive in recruiting and retention by offering better nonpay benefits, including strong training and education programs and family-friendly perks such as flexible work schedules and telecommuting options. Training is especially crucial to attracting and retaining IT workers in government.
'An incentive in the IT profession is to have a continuous learning opportunity,' Callahan said. 'IT professionals want to be challenged, work with state-of-the-art technology and get ahead in their careers.'
Labor is using both OPM's Gov Online Learning Center and its own online virtual university, which offers industry certification programs for IT professionals, to recruit and attract IT workers.
OPM is upgrading its learning center, at golearn.gov, said Norman Enger, OPM's e-government program director.
'In January we will add competency-based guidance that will steer a person through a career in IT,' he said. 'You will be able to see what's available in terms of career progression, learning and training, from a beginning IT professional to a CIO. It will have a recommended curriculum of courses and books.'
But despite enhancements in salary, compensation and training, government managers will continue to face shortages in their IT staffs. And they will continue to outsource a good deal of IT work as a way of dealing with work force gaps. According to the NAPA report, about 70 percent of federal dollars spent on IT in fiscal 2001 went to contractors.
Paradoxically, it seems the increase in government outsourcing will increase the demand for in-house IT professionals in certain specialties.
'With the growth in outsourcing, there is and will continue to be a growing demand for IT professionals who can develop IT strategic plans, assure the adequacy of IT systems security or manage IT projects that are being performed by contractors,' the NAPA report concluded.
Hobbs and Callahan also noted the growing need for in-house systems architects as OMB pushes agencies to develop enterprise architectures.Inside jobs
Given the need for in-house expertise, what outsourcing strategies should managers consider? One approach is to hire people for mid- and senior-level IT positions and contract out other work.
At a recent Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association panel discussion in Bethesda, Md., Tom Pyke, the Commerce Department's CIO said, 'Recruitment is a problem for us. It is almost impossible to recruit lower-level positions.
'The solution is outsourcing,' he added. 'We need it to get the job done. In the long term we need to make sure we have enough people in the mid- and senior-level positions' to manage the contractors.
OPM CIO Janet Barnes said her agency also is focusing on mid- and senior-level positions: 'We are hiring middle-range people and staffing the lower positions with contractors. Our focus is not to hire the best and brightest for entry-level positions' but to hire mid- and senior-level workers to oversee entry-level positions.
For others, contracting strategy is less cut-and-dried. 'You've got to look at each situation and each circumstance and ask yourself, 'What's the appropriate tool to use here?' ' Hobbs said. 'Outsourcing clearly is one tool in the toolbox.
'Obviously, you don't want to contract out command and control responsibilities, but there are routine functions that you can contract out.'
Said Callahan: 'I think the key is looking at it not necessarily from the perspective of, 'How many jobs do you want to outsource?' versus 'How many jobs do you want to keep inside?' It's really looking at it from the perspective of, 'What's in the best interest of the organization to improve overall efficiency?' '
Labor, she said, also uses its Federal Activities Inventory Reform Act list, which catalogs job functions that are deemed commercial in nature and therefore subject to competitive sourcing.
'We are looking to strike a balance between having IT professionals who perform inherently governmental functions, such as strategic planning and project management, and contract services in areas that are more traditional, such as data center and network operations,' she said.
What are the keys for government managers when it comes to building IT work force strategies? There's a lot to consider.
Popovich and Hobbs recommended that managers conduct a thorough top-to-bottom analysis of their IT work forces.
'You have to get a handle on your universe,' Popovich said. 'That means positions, people and skills.'
Hobbs said: 'First, you have to understand what's in your job inventory. You have to know what your gaps are and what are likely to be your gaps two to three years from now. Then you can build your recruitment and retention strategy.
'Then you have to look at how you go about recruiting. What are the intangibles? How much of your work force are you willing to allow to telecommute? Also, you have to be prepared to talk seriously with potential employees about exactly what kind of work they're going to be doing and how they are going to benefit from a work experience with you and your agency.'
But IT managers also can't go it alone. They have to work with their human resources offices.
'You have to have a partnership with your HR counterparts,' Hobbs said. 'That's where the workplace issues are going to be decided.'Considering the future
Managers also have to keep an eye on the horizon, NAPA's Shiplett said.
'You have to look at the global perspective, not just what you need today,' she said. 'What kind of impact is IT going to be having on my program function and work product two, three and four years from now?'
Above all, managers must keep an eye on the bigger picture'their agency's mission.
For DeSeve, that means there's more to it than just developing an IT work force strategy.
'You have to step back from the idea of an IT work force strategy to an overall strategy,' he said. 'It's about providing information systems that are strategic to the business. Technology people should understand the business at all levels.'