Workforce.com

The Hunt for Public Sector IT

April 1, 2000
IIt’s no wonder the public sector is having a hard time competing for ITtalent. In light of the IT labor shortage, many private-sector companies areusing gee-whiz ways to lure new hires, such as stock options and conciergeservices, not to mention flashier bonuses like the shiny new BMWs offered lastyear by Mirronex Technologies Inc., a Skillman, New Jersey-based IT consultingfirm.

Competition like this can kick public organizations to the bottom of ITworkers’ desirability list. Therein lies the problem: How do you compete withdot-com companies offering glamorous perks? Says Lewis Temares, vice presidentfor information technology at the University of Miami in Coral Cables, Florida:"The only thing we can beat ‘em on is quality of life. Stock options areeating us alive!"

Fundamentally, there’s little difference between the public and privatesectors. Both view employees as their customers. However, the most obvious, mostconsequential difference is the lack of profit motive in the public sector. Inthe private sector, HR can use the profit motive in bargaining and compensation.Not so in the public sector, which often has more limited resources and isaccountable to elected officials and local citizens rather than corporate boardsof directors.

Given today’s shortage of IT professionals, public-sector professionalshave finally wised up. Not only are they marketing their greatest assets(stability, flexibility, and social-service values), they’re also turning toalternative sources and creative methods to keep a grasp on their fair share ofthe labor pool. Through a combination of benchmark surveys, trainingpartnerships, task forces, and monitoring of IT legislation, the public sectoris slowly regaining its stature as a worthy employer of choice.

The challenge, of course, is to keep pace with the demand.

Today’s IT labor shortage isn’t getting better.

According to a 1998 study by Arlington, Virginia-based Information TechnologyAssociation of America (ITAA), 346,000 IT jobs currently are unfilled in U.S.companies. Moreover, the U.S. Commerce Department’s Office of TechnologyPolicy report ("America’s New Deficit: The Shortage of InformationTechnology Workers") indicated that between 1996 and 2006, more than 1.3million new systems analysts, computer scientists, engineers, and programmerswould be required to meet industry’s demands. These numbers reflect the ITworkforce shortage in the United States alone. Some government reports estimatethat the current IT shortage costs the nation $105 billion a year.

In that context, the International Personnel Management Association conducteda useful survey in 1998. "Our members wanted to know what were the bestpractices for recruiting IT workers," says Judith Brown, director ofresearch for the Alexandria, Virginia-based IPMA. Of the survey’s 342respondents -- representative of city, county, state, and federal entities --nearly half said they suffered from a shortage of IT staff. Among the mainbarriers to recruiting and retaining staff were low-based salaries compared tothe private sector, less advancement opportunity, and slow applicant tracking.

Interestingly, what is standard fare for the private sector hadn’t beenused by the respondents until recently. These strategies include signing bonusesfor new hires, sponsoring IT job fairs, using professional recruitment firms,sending direct mail to IT professionals, and awarding bonuses to employees whorefer candidates.

On the state level, the most effective recruitment methods identified wereprimarily Internet advertising, college internships, hiring above the minimum ofthe pay range, IT job fairs, campus recruiting, and hiring outside the civilservice test. In the state of New York, the Department of Labor even eliminatedwritten tests for IT professionals and implemented an education and experienceonly review, according to Brown.

Creative partnerships target seniors, women, and youths.

When you think about the IT shortage, doesn’t it seem as though everyone isfixating on the here and now? Sure, who wouldn’t want a young, ready-madecomputer operator, program analyst, and systems programmer? However, to meet theshort-term demand, you may have to consider the global recruitment pool. And inthe long run, consider the vast pool of untrained domestic candidates -- theones who didn’t graduate from the top universities, only to flee to SiliconValley.

Then there are retired seniors. Unskilled women. High school youths.

"Managers, abandon one-size-fits-all rules and salaries. And considereveryone and everything a target," advises Patrick Foss, a former recruiterfor the state of Minnesota and current tech advisor for techies.com in Edina,Minnesota.

Consider Scott Bird, an independent Certified Technical Education Centertrainer. After retiring from small business consulting, he embarked on a courseto become a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer and Microsoft CertifiedTrainer. At age 72, he reached his goal in less than a year. "In just a fewmonths, I earned back all my training costs," he says in a testimonialposted on Microsoft’s Web site.

Bird found out about the program through Arlington, Virginia-based GreenThumb, a national nonprofit corporation in the field of older worker employmentand training. This Green Thumb/Microsoft model provides certification-driven ITtraining to undeserved and under-represented individuals being overlooked by thetechnology revolution.

Contrary to some public opinion, mature workers who take advantage of ITtraining opportunities are especially desirable employees because they bringcompetency and wide experience to their new field, according to Green Thumb.Also, in their later years, many seniors are less concerned about pocketing topsalaries. They appreciate the opportunity to give back to their communitiesthrough social service. The public sector can market its work environment andrecruit employees through organizations such as Green Thumb Inc.

In another program, ITAA has partnered with Women Work!, a nonprofitorganization that helps women from diverse backgrounds to achieve economicself-sufficiency. Through a Women in Apprenticeship and Non-TraditionalOccupations (WANTO) grant, administered by the Department of Labor (DOL) Women’sBureau, ITAA and Women Work! have chosen four regional sites: Oregon, Tennessee,Maine, and Colorado. At each site, a minimum of 10 women will be trained andplaced in entry-level IT jobs.

ITAA also will assist in the identification of existing sources and thedevelopment of new resources that will provide guidance on how to recruit,train, integrate, and retain low-income women in IT jobs. This is another sourceof potential recruits for HR in the public sector.

And don’t forget the kids. ITAA has collaborated with Techworld PublicCharter School, an innovative high school (grades 9-12) in Washington, D.C. Itfirst opened its doors in September 1998 and now has approximately 150 studentswho have completed the ninth grade.

Most of the African-American students come from single-parent homes or havebeen raised by guardians such as aunts, uncles, or grandmothers. Public-sectoremployers can certainly compete with the private sector by offering e-mentoringor job-shadowing, curriculum development, internships, materials about ITcareers, and adjunct instructors.

"ITAA is urging the government to invest more funds in education andtraining," says Olga Grkavac, executive vice president. Indeed, she says,the IT shortage in the federal public sector is quite alarming. It has emergedas one of the most serious concerns of chief information officers and othersenior government officials.

For example, the average age in federal government IT departments ranged fromlate 40s to early 50s. More than 50 percent of these employees will be eligiblefor retirement within the next three years.

"The federal government is facing a crisis in its workforce," saysGrkavac. Reaching out to under-represented social groups may be one of the bestways to ameliorate the shortage.

New Mexico sets up an IT task force.

It’s no secret that the state of New Mexico has one of the lowest percapita personal incomes in the nation -- approximately 79 percent of thenational average, according to the New Mexico Economic Development Department."You have to be creative and use very limited resources," says JudithSizemore, bureau chief for management information systems for the state’sDepartment of Labor. "Now that we’re in the world of the Web, ourcustomers [local citizens] are demanding efficient and intuitive onlineservices."

Local area network administrators are the most difficult IT professionals torecruit, says Sizemore. These are specialists who can ensure seamless servicedelivery of information. Despite its limited resources, New Mexico was one ofthe first states to post personal income tax pieces online. Now the Departmentof Labor would like to automate all the pieces that link unemployment insuranceto other customer-service needs. "Currently, all of our systems areseparate. We want to migrate toward allowing individuals to register forunemployment benefits and work at the same time."

In order to meet such goals, the state’s personnel office and office ofinformation/communication management formed the Information Technology TaskForce on Human Resources. Created two years ago, it comprised the director ofthe state’s personnel office, the state’s chief information officer, andthree senior IT managers, including Sizemore. "We made a professional dealthat if we saw somebody who didn’t match our job architecture, we’d sharethat candidate information with others. What turned out was a greatpartnership," she says.

The task force identified three major objectives:

  • Establish an IT professional development program.
  • Establish an IT internship program.
  • Establish an IT mentorship ("Grow Your Own") program.

Because of the state’s limited resources, Sizemore says, the Department ofLabor also relies a lot on word of mouth. "We try to use as many no-costavenues as possible," she adds. However, when funding is available, HRrecruiters place ads in Computerworld and hang posters in university placementoffices.

What New Mexico can’t offer in terms of high salaries, it makes up for inits quality of life. Landscape aside, many native New Mexicans are returninghome, seeking simpler lifestyles for their families, having been scathed bycorporate downsizings.

"You’re not going to get rich working in the state publicsector," admits Sizemore. "But you’re not going to face anotherout-of-business sale either."

Monitor legislation on foreign worker visas.

On February 9, Senators Spencer Abraham (R-Michigan), Phil Gramm (R-Texas),and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) introduced a bill entitled the American Competitivenessin the 21st Century Act. The bill seeks to build on the successes achieved inbipartisan 1998 legislation that increased the caps placed on visas for highlyskilled foreign workers, known as H-1B visas. Public-sector employers need tomonitor these pieces of legislation and weigh their merits.

In a press statement two months ago, Senator Hatch explained that the twogoals of the bipartisan legislation were to allow for a necessary infusion ofhigh-tech workers in the short term and to make prudent investments in our ownworkforce for the long term. The bill increases the cap on H-1B visas to 195,000visas over each of the next three years. It also would exempt individuals whocome to work in U.S. universities and those who’ve received advanced degreesin our educational institutions.

"We also need to redouble our efforts to provide training andeducational opportunities for our current and future workforce," saidSenator Hatch. "Thus, we raise an additional $150 million for scholarshipsand training of American workers for these jobs, for a total of $375 million foreducation and training under this program over three fiscal years. Ourlegislation, in other words, seeks to address both the short- and long-termneeds."

Harris N. Miller, ITAA president, praised the new legislation. "WhenCongress raised the H-1B annual ceiling to 115,000 in 1998, no one anticipatedan even greater escalation in the demand for IT workers," he said. "It’stime for Congress to increase the cap again."

The question for public-service employers, however, is whether you’veconsidered hiring foreign workers at all. If you have, don’t be too quick toassume it’ll be that easy. Says Temares: "These foreign workers have alsoheard of stock options." In other words, you’re still going to have tomarket the benefits of the public sector: social service and quality of lifeversus the entrepreneurial road.

Regardless of which recruiting strategy you use, keep in mind that you’researching for IT workers with specific values. Public-sector workers placedhighest importance on interesting work, while private-sector workers ranked thatfactor as fourth in importance. Good wages ranked first among the latter group.

But public employees ranked salary as second in importance, according toresearch conducted at Indiana University in South Bend by Cynthia Sutton,assistant professor of management, and Katherine A. Karl, assistant professor inthe School of Public and Environmental Affairs. "Public organizations [alsocan] play up job security and long-term careers. While they may downsize, it’sto a lesser extent than private organizations," says Sutton.

Given those assets, the public sector may not need a complete makeover afterall. Just a better PR machine -- and a bigger bag of recruiting tricks.

Workforce, April 2000, Vol. 79, No. 4, pp. 62-70-- Subscribenow!