During his decades of federal service, Dave Wennergren has witnessed a massive shift in the way government views and relies on technology. But what the deputy chief information officer at the Defense Department now sees isn't so much how technology has become woven into agencies' everyday work, but how that dependence creates a critical need for information technology workers.
Wennergren, who co-chairs the federal Chief Information Officers Council, is no stranger to the government's resounding alarm that agencies face an unplanned exodus of middle- and senior-level managers. Almost every executive has heard that warning for years. But what makes it even more unsettling for the IT workforce is the transforming landscape of federal technology, given the advent of Web 2.0, cloud computing, and easy access to applications and handheld devices. Combine that with the culture of young IT professionals who are part of an Internet-savvy generation that expects its workplace to be connected to the latest technology and you have a storm brewing.
"It's crucial that information leaders understand these two sets of challenges; the pace of technological change and what that means to get your job done, and the need to have a workforce that's adept at using that technology and leveraging it to create innovation and new ideas," Wennergren says.
Under Wennergren's leadership, the CIO Council issued a report in June that was a clarion call for agencies to adapt to the new workforce and to institute changes that, in many instances, run counter to long-established bureaucratic work processes and traditions. According to the report, "Net Generation" -- a term applied to young workers who have never known a time without the Internet--the nature of IT jobs is changing faster than ever. The programmers of the past are now the knowledge managers and cybersecurity experts of today, and it won't be enough for agencies to look at what has traditionally worked to attract new employees. Instead, federal managers must be open to -- and create -- a culture that embraces quick hiring, flexible work hours, different ways to pay employees, more emphasis on career development, and handing responsibility to employees sooner rather than later. In essence, government can't be a stodgy bureaucracy anymore.
Make no mistake. Workforce experts know such a culture shift won't be easy. Many of the Net Generation, those 17 to 31 years old, don't think highly of government. And that's doubly true for technology workers. In addition, agencies have to compete against some of the fastest-growing and generous -- and, let's face it, cooler -- technology companies for the young talent. Even a deep recession that shut down job growth hasn't brought IT candidates to federal human resource offices, where positions are aplenty.
It's no surprise then that the government's future for hiring IT workers, just when it needs them most, looks bleaker than ever. But drastic times call for drastic measures, Wennergren says. "It is imperative that the federal government attracts and retains the best and the brightest of the workforce of the future," he notes in the report. "And this will only happen if we are able to provide our workforce with access to Information Age tools and capabilities, as well as providing them with an environment that unleashes and nurtures the fire of their innovation and creativity."
In the Oct. 1 issue of Government Executive, Brittany Ballenstedt looks at the challenge facing the government in recruiting IT employees.