Shortage of IT workers reaches a critical stage

Everybody in government is intensely aware of the IT work force problem. Make that crisis.

You know the grim picture. You've heard the dire statistics over and over.

A year ago, the National Academy of Public Administration catalogued the situation in The Transforming Power of Information Technology: Making the Federal Government an Employer of Choice for IT Employees, a report commissioned by the federal CIO Council. Among its conclusions:
  • There's a massive, nationwide shortage of IT professionals. The outlook might not improve for decades.

  • The federal IT work force is aging. About 50 percent of IT workers are eligible for retirement in the next five years.

  • A pay gap with the private sector and the government's lengthy hiring process keeps IT talent away.

  • The government doesn't invest enough in IT training and continuous learning.

The NAPA panel concluded that government cannot compete under the current system. It called for systemic changes: market-driven pay, managerial flexibility, a streamlined recruiting and hiring process, competitive nonpay benefits and the creation of a learning culture.

On top of that are the likely work force changes that will come with the proposed Homeland Security Department, whose advent seems guaranteed by Republican wins in this month's elections; the Bush administration can now count on congressional support.

Massive IT undertaking

The proposed department would have 170,000 employees, and its creation would involve a massive IT undertaking in terms of an information architecture. The administration wants to give HSD managers more flexibility and eliminate some long-standing civil service rules.

The NAPA report represented a milestone. It took the government IT work force issue out of the realm of 'anecdotal conversation by different people at different times and brought qualitative analysis by a well-respected organization,' said Ira Hobbs, the Agriculture Department's deputy CIO and co-chair of the CIO Council's IT work force and human capital for IT committee. 'It created the infrastructure that everything else is growing from.'

More than anything, perhaps, the report offered a prescription for an ideal future.

But for government managers, the crisis is a stark, everyday reality.

Especially alarming are mounting numbers of IT professionals headed out the door and into retirement.

At the Labor Department, for example, 53 percent of IT workers will be eligible for retirement within the next three to five years, said Laura Callahan, Labor deputy CIO and co-chair with Hobbs of the CIO Council's work force committee.

A vexing part of the problem is not knowing when eligible workers will choose to retire, Callahan said. 'It's a day-to-day challenge,' she said.

The Labor Department is trying to keep its work force gap from yawning any wider, at least for the short term, by offering retention bonuses to its IT employees.

Dot-com workers

What about the recent dot-com shakeout? Didn't that enlarge the available IT worker pool available to government? Well, not really.

'A lot of that talent moved right back to the private-sector jobs they left to join the start-up companies,' Hobbs said.

The downturn in the economy 'has certainly made some critical skills more available,' said Myra Shiplett, director of NAPA's Center for Human Resource Management. 'But it also has lulled people into thinking that things may be OK because it isn't quite as hard to get the really good people.'

Despite the gloom, government leaders have reasons to be sanguine. For one thing, much can be done within the current legal and regulatory framework, said Office of Personnel Management director Kay Coles James.

A virtual IT job fair sponsored last April by OPM and the CIO Council demonstrated that the government's recruiting and hiring process can be simplified and streamlined. The government has been able to offer more competitive salaries in the last year, thanks to OPM's special IT pay rates. And major moves are afoot to improve nonpay compensation and promulgate 'work-life balance' benefits such as telecommuting and flexible work schedules.

Above all else, experts say, solving the work force crisis will take leadership and teamwork, from the top managers down to line managers, and from departments across the agency: IT, financial and human resources.


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