Reeling in IT talent in the public sector
IF YOU'RE MANAGING an IT department at just about any company in the country,
recruiting quality IT talent is probably your biggest headache. And it's not going away
anytime soon. There are fewer computer science majors coming out of universities today
than there were 10 years ago, and demand for fresh talent is still growing. Competition
is tight, salaries can be absurdly high, and benefits that used to be special perks,
such as stock options, are standard issue.
Now imagine that you're working in the public sector. Your problem just got a whole
As nearly all public agencies and government have become savvy to the benefits of
technology, their IT project lists have grown. And like their counterparts in the
private sector, they need to hire top-notch programmers, engineers, and project
managers who have skills in the latest technologies.
But government organizations -- particularly at the state and local level, where
budgets and staffs are smaller -- are strapped by restrictions such as salary caps, an
inability to offer stock options, and a reputation for lagging behind in technology
innovation. These factors can add up to the least attractive opportunity an IT job
To overcome the growing shortage of IT workers, government agencies have gotten
creative, and to stay competitive, private companies may just have to follow suit.
"This shortage of IT workers hits the state governments more so than the private
sector," says Ed Janairo, training coordinator in the information technology group at
the Council of State Governments, in Lexington, Ky. "The base salary is typically
lower, and there's the impression or stereotype out there that state governments [are]
going to be using older systems that seems to deter a lot of candidates."
The public sector is investigating its recruiting difficulties. Last year, the
Council of State Governments decided that the issue of IT recruiting was crucial, so it
sent out a survey to the top IT managers in each state -- usually the state CIO or IT
director -- to find out just how bad the situation was. A report due out in May will
detail the findings of the survey.
"This is more of a preliminary report. It doesn't go so far as to identify best
[recruiting] practices, but the point is to make clear the severity of the problem for
state administrators," Janairo says.
But IT administrators in the public sector can't wait for the survey results to
help them hire qualified people. Many are finding ways to attract the IT talent they
need in their own creative ways: forming partnerships with the commercial sector,
promoting the mission behind what they do, and even becoming marketers.
More than money
As has happened in technology centers such as the Silicon Valley, New York, Boston,
and Austin, Texas, a number of Internet and telecommunications giants in the past
decade have moved in to Northern Virginia's FFairfax County. PSINet, Nextel, and MCI
Worldcom, as well as dozens of dot-com start-ups, call Fairfax home. Fairfax County has
the added acclaim of being one of the more affluent counties in the country, according
to Fairfax County CIO David Molchany.
That means Fairfax County must compete for IT talent with stock-option-slinging
employers who offer luxury automobiles as signing bonuses. And though it's not New York
or San Francisco, Fairfax is a costlier place to live than the surrounding counties
are, and candidates expect salaries to reflect that difference.
So how does Fairfax County staff its projects? It engages in some good old-
fashioned marketing, Molchany says.
"A year ago, we had over 29 vacancies [in IT departments]; today we have seven.
We're selling Fairfax as very flexible," Molchany says. "We're able to deal with flex
time, job sharing, and basically any special need. And the fact that you're working for
us [means] you probably aren't going to have to work on weekends, which is different
from the private sector. And we don't require a lot of travel."
And it's not just what Fairfax is saying that's attracting good people. The county
is also jazzing up its message to potential recruits.
"We've changed the way we recruit. Our Washington Post ads are now designed to
attract attention. Before it was just the county seal and the job description. Now we
use borders [around the ads] and hot recruiting terms like 'Oracle,' " Molchany
Molchany's advice to those trying to hire IT talent is to first find out what other
organizations around them are paying. Then they should focus on what differentiates
their organization from others. In Molchany's case, the differentiators are the
flexibility that Fairfax County can offer its employees and the opportunity they will
have to get some training in hot technologies.
"We have some pretty modern programs. We're involved in 'e-government,' " Molchany
says. "We've got a great Web site where you can pay taxes over the Web, we've got
multimedia kiosks in 21 locations throughout the county, and we've got interactive
Although Molchany doesn't necessarily want to sell his organization as a training
ground to potential employees -- because that implies workers are learning then
leaving -- he admits that it happens.
"I'm really interested in getting employees and retaining them, but it can be a
great place [for new employees] to learn, too," Molchany says.
Befriending the competition
At the offices of the state government of Missouri, located in Jefferson City,
competition for IT talent is tight, but for different reasons. The state of Missouri is
the largest employer of technology talent in the Jefferson City area, and therefore a
poaching target for any company coming into the region that needs IT staff, says state
of Missouri CIO Mike Benzen.
The state government decided to join forces with the private sector to try to solve
their common problem. In 1996, Missouri formed a coalition that included local private
companies and universities. They jointly developed IT training programs that would help
the schools supply greater numbers of qualified job candidates (see article, below).
One advantage that the state government has is that many folks in rural areas are
less likely to be lured by big-city salaries, Missouri's Benzen says.
"Many people in this area are here by choice, because they have family here or they
grew up here. They're not as likely to be attracted by higher pay in Silicon Valley,"
Benzen says. "We figure if we can grow our own [IT talent], many of them will stay."
Yet Benzen admits that hiring a worker who has been through an IT training course
or two often means settling for less taleent than what he's looking for.
"We really want to get the 25-year veterans, but we can't always do that. We find
that we're often taking our second choice or our third choice [candidate]," Benzen
Not locked in
The state of California's Department of Corrections, in Sacramento, loses a lot of
its IT employees to the commercial sector. Private companies pay more, says Melinda
Gibson, chief of applications development and maintenance with the department's
information systems division. The department, which is responsible for the care of
offenders who are in custody, currently loses 15 percent of its 150-person IT staff
One reason is that new recruits simply don't stay long.
"We're a training ground. So the state of California and the taxpayers lose,"
Gibson says. "We really can't compete [with the private sector]. Most of us in civil
service believe that public service is the right thing for us."
For those who stay on at the Department of Corrections, money isn't a top priority.
Those IT professionals stay because they believe their work is making a difference.
"I have had staff who have always wanted to work here because they really believe
in the mission of the department," Gibson says. "It kind of surprised me, but it makes
sense as well. We all need to feel like we're contributing to society in a positive
That's a selling point that the department promotes when it attends job fairs and
conferences, Gibson adds.
Facing market realities
Despite these approaches, governmental departments across the board need to raise
the salaries of IT workers, says Jerry Mechling, director of Strategic Computing and
Telecommunications in the Public Sector at Harvard University's Kennedy School of
Government, in Cambridge, Mass.
"It's been a general problem for the government to find and hire any specialty that
becomes hot in the market," Mechling says. "And if you're first in your field, you can
make a lot more money being outside [of the government] than inside. It's true for
doctors, lawyers, in addition to IT."
But government agencies need to face the realities of competing with the commercial
sector for IT, because the challenge isn't going away anytime soon.
"While it's a long-term and bloody undertaking, convincing civil-servant structures
to keep closer to market salaries is very worthwhile. You can't have a huge [salary]
gap for a long period of time and not have it hurt you," Mechling says.
Fairfax's Molchany says that although he still isn't paying his workers on par with
commercial companies he's getting close. Salaries were raised by an average of 5
percent last year. He has committed to keep within range of private sector salaries by
doing surveys on an annual basis.
"We have to be competitive with the marketplace. We have to keep an eye on what
other people are paying, and we will do market studies yearly because we have to be as
conscientious as we can," Molchany says.
Molchany has a group of advisors called the Information Technology Policy Advisory
Council, made up of business executives from the community, that supports the idea of
One alternative to recruiting is farming out projects overseas, which can be a hot
button issue when spending taxpayers' dollars.
"We are seeing a [staffing] shortage situation where a lot of the work is going
offshore; the rates are attractive and it's decent quality," Benzen says. "It's not
popular to send taxpayer's money overseas, but as a last resort, if it was that or [the
project] wouldn't get done, we'd do it."
There are lessons to be learned from the creative approaches that state and local
governments are taking to recruuiting. Forming partnerships with other employers in the
area to tackle the problem can produce results, as can selling what's unique about
one's company, such as a high level of workplace flexibility or a compelling
The public sector is proving that sane hours, and not pie-in-the-sky stock options,
can be attractive to highly qualified job applicants. But Kennedy School's Mechling
warns that private companies should also be realistic when borrowing ideas from
government recruitment practices.
"You can't lie and say [to a recruit], 'You'll only have to work 40 hours a week'
when really you're going to whip them for 65," Mechling says.