Plucking IT Talent

Government faces steep competition as it tries to beef up its ranks with technology specialists.

Government faces steep competition as it tries to beef up its ranks with technology specialists.

It's no secret the federal government is facing a shortage of qualified information technology professionals, and the lack of expertise could be costing taxpayers billions of dollars annually. In report after report on projects gone awry, a dearth of IT and management experience and an overreliance on contractors emerge as the culprits.

Compounding the problem, one-third of the federal workforce will be eligible for retirement by 2012, according to Government Accountability Office estimates. The talent shortage comes when President Obama has promised to make government networks better, faster and more secure. It's clear the administration must start hiring a lot of IT professionals, and quickly.

John Palguta, vice president for policy at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, estimates between 12,000 and 20,000 IT job openings in the federal government during the next two years, with the number rising as the Obama administration makes good on its promise to leverage technology to increase government accountability and transparency.

Government often turns to the private sector when faced with pressing needs and a shortage of required skills. But during his first months in office, President Obama repeatedly signaled that he wants to decrease government's reliance on contractors. Luckily for him, the timing could not be better for government to be hiring. The administration's pledge to breathe new life into the civil service and rising unemployment figures are making federal jobs more attractive.

"We're in an interesting place, in that attitudes toward the government as a possible employer have changed in the government's favor," says Palguta. Many agencies are receiving double the applications they were one year ago, he says.

W. Hord Tipton, executive director of the International Information Systems Security Certification Consortium, says the stability of government work and anticipation that the administration will find innovative uses for technology have made IT positions all the more enticing. "Things look pretty bright for the government side," he says.

But the government is not poised to become the most-coveted IT employer anytime soon. The private sector still values technical skills highly and the public-private pay gap is unlikely to disappear. Also harmful is the appearance that federal agencies don't "get" the latest technologies. As one former Marine working as an IT contractor puts it, the perception is government is always five years behind the private sector when it comes to technology.

"Government employees tend to get comfortable," says the former Marine, who asked not to be named. "In IT you can never get comfortable. You get comfortable, you get obsolete."

Another major stumbling point is the federal hiring process. The recent uptick in applications already has begun to overwhelm human resources offices and systems, Palguta says. As agencies comply with the administration's goal of spending Recovery Act funds within the next two years, the backlog is likely to increase.

"The inability of the government to look at a résumé and discern if a person has the skills to interview is baffling for the commercial community," says Trey Hodgkins, vice president for national security and procurement policy at the Washington-based industry group TechAmerica. "Even if they want to hire you, you have to wait six months to a year for the process. If people find something else [in the meantime], they take it."

One way managers can work around these impediments is to convince contractors to apply for government jobs. Contract employees are familiar with their agency's environment and policies and often are able to continue working during the hiring process.

"If I were a government manager, I'd absolutely want to look at contract employees," Palguta says. "I'd be down there talking to them about great opportunities working in the government."

Another alternative is to explore closer integration with academic institutions and the military. The government already does well on the latter; according to a November 2008 Office of Personnel Management report, nearly one of every four hires is a veteran. Agencies often send recruiters to military processing centers to speak with recently discharged veterans.

One way to target recent graduates is on-campus recruiting. Some agencies-particularly in the law enforcement and intelligence fields-are effective in reaching younger candidates, Palguta says. But almost every federal agency is deploying interesting and innovative technology in pursuit of its mission, and recruiters should highlight those projects, he says.

Social media is critical in tapping young talent, as Obama's campaign demonstrated. "You have to go back to Kennedy to see the same level of enthusiasm" for public service, Palguta says. "We need talent at all levels, but making a pitch for the best new college graduates, to me, is a no-brainer. People want to go to a place where they can make a difference and do something meaningful."

Hodgkins notes that to attract the brightest young IT workers, the government must embrace the tools they use to communicate.

"It's a non-starter to many of these kids if they can't use social media," says Hodgkins.

Student internship programs also can be an effective way for agencies to identify and develop future federal employees. Not only are students who complete internships promising candidates for federal employment, they can serve as ambassadors for government service. Palguta says some agencies have started giving former interns small stipends to hold office hours on campus, where peers can ask them what it's like to work for the federal government.

"Most are absolutely booked," Palguta says. "You can't post a job on and pray that the right people find you. You need to influence the people who influence students."