Tough Sell

Government's stodgy image gives industry an edge in the chase for young technology workers.

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."

The Urgency of Now

The Net Generation report found more than 108,000 federal workers were employed in IT positions in fiscal 2009. While the report's authors didn't estimate how many would retire in the coming years, they warned of "great potential for a cascade of retirements over the next decade or more." Nearly 957,000 federal workers overall will become eligible to retire between fiscal 2006 and fiscal 2016, with nearly two-thirds, or an estimated 586,000, choosing to leave government, the report states.

The wave behind the baby boomers, the 32- to 44-year-olds known as Generation X, is much smaller than the boomer population. That means federal agencies will be forced to look within the ranks of the Net Generation, also known as millennials, to fill voids in many leadership positions. "The Net Generation employees are going to come into the workforce and assume leadership positions at a much younger age than any generation before them," Wennergren says.

It will be difficult for government to replace exiting employees with younger workers. But it will be even more daunting to convince 20-somethings to apply for federal IT positions. In 2009, the Partnership for Public Service reported 34 percent of liberal arts majors viewed government as an ideal employer, but only 13 percent of students majoring in an IT-related field held government in such high regard. "There's really a great deal of upfront work we have to do," said Tim McManus, vice president for education and outreach at the Partnership.

"Ultimately, what it means for IT is you can't wait long into their college tenure to be making the case for government."

Agencies should become familiar with what makes the Net Generation tick, particularly in the workplace. Millennials expect their employers to give them meaningful work, flexible schedules, autonomy, consistent feedback, mentoring and immediate responsibility, according to the Net Generation report, citing findings from research firm nGenera. And because this younger generation grew up with the Internet, many expect to use cutting-edge technologies and online applications at work, including social networking sites, mash-ups, online gaming, virtual worlds and instant messaging-e-mail is for their parents' generation. Ninety-seven percent of millennials say they at least partly agree with the statement that when choosing an employer it will be essential to have access to state-of-the-art technology and social networking applications, according to a survey the consulting firm Accenture released in March.

"These are the tools they've been using in their daily lives before they ever get to us, so if your organization is going to make it hard to collaborate, create forums, blog and use wikis to get the job done, then you may not be an employer of choice," Wennergren says. "You'll get behind quickly because you won't be offering them an environment that appeals to them."

The good news is the Net Generation of professionals want jobs they believe make a difference. Most federal agencies can offer that. Their missions provide meaningful and essential services to the public, and therefore could fulfill the altruistic desires of younger workers, McManus points out. "It's not just about wanting to be a federal IT professional," he says. "It's about wanting to work in IT, but having other varied interests, too. If I'm interested in environmental issues, the [Food and Drug Administration] may not be the right agency for me. If agencies don't create that line of sight, they're really missing a key component."

Hating Bureaucracy

Convincing young IT workers to knock on government's door will require more than simply talking about the meaningful work an agency provides, or showing them tech bells and whistles. The consensus among agency CIOs, chief human capital officers and other experts is the biggest obstacle to attracting IT workers is the federal government's drawn-out hiring process.

"If there's one thing that the cream of the crop in high tech is against, it would be slow and bureaucratic," says Roger Baker, CIO at the Veterans Affairs Department. "So how do you convince folks-those who want to find the problem, tackle the problem, solve the problem and move on to the next problem-that the right place for them to work is in an organization that can't get out of its way just in hiring them?"

In May, President Obama directed agencies to overhaul their hiring processes, in part by allowing applicants to submit only résumés and cover letters rather than lengthy knowledge, skills and abilities essays, as they've done in the past. The memo also asked managers to be more involved in the hiring process and directed agencies to use a rating system to keep the best-qualified applicants in a pool of potential hires, even if officials select another candidate.

But it will take time to implement Obama's directive. Federal human resources managers say they still struggle with the government's lengthy hiring process, according to a study the Partnership for Public Service and Grant Thornton LLP released in August. What's more, many say their staffs don't have the skills to carry out the reforms.

Baker is part of an initiative at VA to hire more than 800 new IT workers this year. He says his hiring effort, and those of other agencies, would be streamlined if he simply chose a good résumé from a pile of applications, set up interviews and quickly offered the best candidate the job. "I know there are processes for that," he says, "but the question is whether the processes encourage hiring, or whether they encourage bureaucracy and hiring is a secondary piece."

The hardest part of Baker's hiring spree has been finding experienced professionals, particularly those with project management skills. "Frankly, I thought we would benefit more from the recession than we have," he says. But even a recession couldn't make government more attractive. Jeff Neal, chief human capital officer at the Homeland Security Department, has faced similar problems, especially when trying to hire individuals with cybersecurity expertise. "Getting a new job classification for something like cyber- security takes a couple of years, and having flexibility for hiring these folks is hard to get," he says. "Cybersecurity is probably one of the poster children for federal hiring reform and why the hiring reform the president ordered is so critical."

Last fall, the Office of Personnel Management authorized a new hiring authority for DHS to fill 1,000 cyber positions during the next three years. The department also has direct-hire authority for certain types of cybersecurity expertise, and Neal says this has been useful in signing up more than 200 workers so far. But the government needs as many as 30,000 cyber specialists, according to Jim Gosler, a fellow at Sandia National Laboratory and a visiting scientist at the National Security Agency.

What makes that such a sobering goal is agencies are struggling to fill even entry-level IT jobs. Many have created internships and woven them into hiring and succession plans, says McManus. He heads up FedRecruit IT, in which five agencies have established or expanded their IT internship programs so they work as a pipeline to fill full-time positions.

"What the five agencies are trying to do is make an effort to tie internships to their job openings down the line," McManus says. "If I know we need 10 people who have cybersecurity experience and expertise, then what I need to do is make sure my interns are coming in with that type of expertise." An assessment of the programs will become part of a guide on how agencies can improve entry-level IT recruiting and hiring, McManus says.

Programs like these seem like they were plucked out of the Net Generation report, which urges IT managers to become more involved in the hiring process and to forge better relationships with their HR departments. The report also advises IT managers to improve interview processes by quickly identifying candidates and ensuring skilled individuals are conducting interviews.

"Interviewing is a skill worth honing, particularly with the Net Generation," the report states.

After Hiring, the Hard Work

Once highly skilled IT workers are hired and sitting at their desks, then the real work begins: trying to keep them. One of the most effective ways is to give employees duties that are interesting and have a real connection to the agency's mission.

Managers also must meet other needs, particularly among the Net Generation, according to Wennergren. This includes providing opportunities for training, alternative work schedules, frequent recognition and quick advancement. "One thing we know about this generation is they're not like my parents' generation, where you went to work for a company for 40 years and got the gold watch," he says. "If they're not given a chance to deliver results, they're much more likely to move on than to stay in an environment in which they're not happy."

The Net Generation report recommends IT managers commit to changing the bureaucratic culture by providing a significant level of responsibility to younger employees after they arrive at the agency. Long-term development is an inducement for them to stay because they want a clear track on how their careers can progress, the report states.

Being open to a flexible workplace will require a shift in thinking for many managers. It's more than providing telework; it also includes allowing employees to decide where and when they want to work, provided they meet specific performance standards. "It's about not being held to an 8-to-5 workday anymore," McManus says.

IT managers also need new ways to ensure flexibility in pay, bonuses, promotions and dealing with poor performers. "We hamper our efforts to hire and retain good tech people," Baker says. "Nothing will impact the morale of a great performer more than sitting side by side with a nonperformer and knowing they're both going to get the same raise that year." But that isn't the worst news for agencies looking for IT talent. Government always has had difficulty competing with the private sector for most types of skilled workers, and it usually has lost. For IT that will even be harder, according to the Net Generation report.

Agencies will find competing with the Googles and Apples of the world for IT talent to be daunting. In a 2007 survey that asked college seniors to identify the companies that would be ideal to work for, five federal agencies were mentioned, according to the employment research company Universum Communications. By 2008, only three agencies made the list. By 2009, not one agency made the top 10, a trend that held in 2010. Companies such as Google, Apple and Walt Disney made the top five every one of those years.

Despite this bad news, Wennergren insists the team that wrote the Net Generation report wasn't trying to describe an impossible task. He remains upbeat that the government can convince young IT professionals to join its workforce-but only if managers are willing to change. "We weren't trying to paint a grim picture, but we did want to make sure people had the facts at their disposal to see the reality of the situation and it's a call to action," he says. "Given that, hopefully then you will read through it and see how you can use the tools and some of this information to help give you a leg up on how do you find them, how do you attract them and how do you keep them."

Brittany Ballenstedt, a former staff writer for Government Executive, covers the IT workforce for Nextgov, the magazine's online technology publication.

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