How states can fill the tech workforce gap
As state and local governments try to fill thousands of vacant tech jobs, one expert said agencies should appeal to younger workers’ desire for meaningful work and flexibility.
State governments scrambling to fill vacant technology and cybersecurity jobs might look to the thousands of workers who are being laid off from private-sector tech companies that are facing their own economic headwinds.
If governments want to attract millennials who might be looking to shift their careers into the public sector, they should appeal to that generation’s desire for “public service” and “meaningful work,” said Meredith Ward, the director of policy and research for the National Association of State Chief Information Officers.
While some federal agencies are taking the opportunity to appeal to laid-off tech workers, state governments should also play up the fact that the work they do can have “life and death consequences,” she said, like dealing with cyberattacks that impact public health and safety systems.
“That's the thing that you can only do in government,” Ward said during a GCN webinar. “Whereas cyber might have been a faceless task however many years ago,” now cybersecurity incidents and threats are affecting people every day, she said. “It is a crime just like any other.”
A previous survey by NASCIO and Deloitte called on state governments looking to hire tech workers to “compete effectively” with the private sector. That competition must involve offering employees the chance to work outside the office if they prefer, likely in a hybrid situation, Ward said. While governments may prefer to have their employees in-office, especially for handling sensitive information and services that require human interaction, Ward said states’ cyber postures were not undermined when everyone was remote.
Besides looking to attract new employees, states also must consider reskilling or upskilling their existing workers, especially those who want to stay in government service but want to shift roles or make a complete career change, Ward said. States looking to offer workers more options and bolster their tech workforce should take advantage of available training and ensure they have enough budget to do so.
Ward said she has heard of people from “all kinds of backgrounds” shifting into cybersecurity or technology careers, a transition that, for agencies, is less expensive than hiring new staff and paying the costs typically associated with onboarding a new employee. If instruction cannot be offered in-house, giving employees the chance to grow from private-sector training could help retain them long-term, she said.
“When a state has a worker who is dedicated, wants to be there, wants to give back to the state and maybe their job function becomes obsolete, a state should do everything in their power to keep that person,” she said. “That's something that isn't taught. You can't teach someone how to be dedicated and want to give back to the state.”
Like states, local governments are also struggling to hire and retain employees in crucial cybersecurity and technology roles, even as they remain vulnerable to ransomware attacks and other hacks.
The federal grant money available soon that places an emphasis on states providing local governments with various cyber services could help the “whole of state” approach to cybersecurity and build relationships between the various levels of government, Ward said.
And while she acknowledged that the cyber workforce issue will never be truly solved, there is hope for the future as states look to mid-career or second-career internships, partner with and recruit from the nation’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities or look to use less conventional interview techniques for prospective employees. Ward said these and other initiatives show states are “moving in the right direction” to fill vacant cyber jobs.