Agencies face uphill battle for tech workers

One of the federal government's primary functions is to make massive amounts of information available to the public, and to meet this obligation, it relies increasingly on the Internet. The government has more than 2 million Web sites and more than 31 million Web pages, and those numbers are growing rapidly.

But the critical support for this mission is faltering: More than 50 percent of the government's information technology workforce will be eligible to retire in the next five years. While the average age of top private-sector IT workers is estimated to be in the 20s, in the government it's in the mid-40s and rising.

The retirements are coming at a time when the government is losing the battle with the better-paying private sector for top-notch IT workers. Private-sector demand for new IT workers in the United States is intense. Even with the economic slowdown, it is projected at 900,000 positions this year; some 425,000 of those will go unfilled because of the scarcity of skilled applicants, according to the Information Technology Association of America. More than 10 million Americans are information technology workers.

If the federal government is to put more of its information and services on the Web and improve its efficiency--the heart of the e-government initiative on which President Bush campaigned--it will have to raise its level of high-tech expertise. According to data from the Office of Personnel Management, the federal government employed approximately 60,000 IT professionals at the end of fiscal 2000. It will need an additional 16,000 in the next 10 years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Does this gap spell disaster? Not necessarily, say administration officials.

Mark Forman, the new associate director for information technology and e-government in the Office of Management and Budget, is not worried. Where the government lacks the expertise to do a job, it can contract with the private sector to fill the position, he said.

Forman noted that as much as 80 percent of the government's IT work is already contracted out, and he framed the issue this way: If half of the remaining 20 percent of government IT workers retire, "does that matter?" His answer: "We have to get out of this notion that in order to get work done, we have to own the resources." His reasoning follows Office of Management and Budget Director Mitch Daniels's strategy of using more contractors throughout government.

But Forman acknowledges that there must be a core of technical expertise inside the government and that competition for the best IT people remains fierce. Recruitment is hardest, according to studies, for "premium skills" jobs such as Web systems management, e-commerce analysis, database administration, and Web applications programming.

Contractors also need to be highly qualified, officials said. "We must have the ability to acquire the right skill set and knowledge level in our mix of in-house and private resources to be able to maintain this effectiveness," said Stephen Perry, administrator of the General Services Administration, in recent testimony before Congress. "This is clearly a huge challenge."

The challenge is to entice skilled workers by offering high salaries, responsibility, and flexible jobs. "I'm not sure we've got `world class' in either category [employees or contractors]," Forman said. "I believe we've got very good people. But not everybody is `best in class.' "

Government IT salaries continue to lag far behind the private sector. Chief information officers, who are the agencies' top IT officials, typically earn about $125,000 per year. Their private-sector counterparts can earn more than $300,000, according to Olga Grkavac, executive vice president of the Information Technology Association of America. Many of the techies who retire from government in the next few years are likely to be drawn to the private sector, she said.

Forman, 42, is an example of a highly skilled IT specialist who has crossed and recrossed the public-private line. He has been vice president for e-business at Unisys Corp., chief of global e-business strategy at IBM Corp., and a senior staffer for IT issues on the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee.

The federal government spends about $45 billion a year on information technology, not including military and intelligence budgets, Forman said. With military and intelligence IT wrapped in, the figure is estimated to be $77 billion. The government uses information technology for a range of tasks, from the most commonplace administrative applications such as payroll and financial systems to state-of-the-art scientific and engineering projects.

Throwing more money at the worker shortage is not the solution, Forman said. He advocates using existing resources more efficiently. Forman defines e-government as the use of digital technologies to transform operations and improve effectiveness, efficiency, and service delivery. He is leading an interagency e-government task force aimed at making the government more "citizen-centric." The task force met at the White House on August 9 and is interviewing government executives about their e-government activities and plans, with an eye toward developing presidential initiatives in September.

But the administration's e-government budget proposal of $20 million for fiscal year 2002 has run into trouble in Congress. The House-passed appropriations bill includes only $5 million for e-government. Forman is negotiating with senators before they take up the bill in September.

Some on the Hill are sympathetic to the e-government cause. Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., chairman of the House Government Reform Committee's Subcommittee on Technology and Procurement Policy, recently introduced a bill to establish a "Digital TechCorps" that would allow government and the private sector to exchange workers for up to two years and would raise the level of high-tech expertise in the government. "My hope is to rekindle Americans' faith in public service," Davis said.

Forman said: "Without the training, without people actively seeking out knowledge, we're not going to have a high-quality workforce." Industry has realized a 40 percent improvement in productivity in the past five years as a result of new technologies, an achievement Forman said he wants to duplicate within government.

Training is also an important factor in ensuring government-wide computer security, which the General Accounting Office considers at high risk. The House Energy and Commerce Committee's Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee has held a series of hearings on major computer-security problems in federal departments and agencies. At one session, officials testified that many of the problems have easy remedies, such as getting workers to keep their passwords to themselves.

In testimony before a July 31 hearing of Davis's technology subcommittee, Steven Kelman, a professor at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, spoke about the challenge of getting young skilled workers into government.

"We are disturbed--and everybody should be disturbed--by some dramatic numbers," he said. Twenty years ago, according to Kelman, about three-quarters of the graduates of the Kennedy School's master's program got their first job in government. Now that figure is down to about one-third, and a similar drop-off is reflected in other top graduate programs around the country.

"If government is having trouble attracting our students, who choose to attend an institution dedicated to public service, this should be a warning sign of the seriousness of the problems government faces today," Kelman said. He recommended more government recruiting for mid-level jobs, rather than just entry-level or senior positions.

Before making any recommendations on the IT worker issue, Forman wants to see an assessment of the types of skills the government really needs. The congressionally chartered National Academy of Public Administration is reviewing the federal IT workforce, and its recommendations are expected in late summer.

The study is sponsored by the CIOs of 24 federal agencies, who are working collectively on the problem. Their CIO Council was established by executive order in 1996 to improve the government's ability to attract and retain a top-quality IT workforce, and to expand education and training opportunities for existing workers.

Top federal managers, including the CIOs, have been criticized for failing to keep up with the government's needs through training and retention of workers. The Bush Administration has given CIOs additional accountability for the performance of their agencies in meeting IT goals.

Gloria Parker, CIO at the Housing and Urban Development Department and co-chair of the CIO Council's Federal IT Workforce Committee, said the additional accountability is "good," though not yet formalized. The committee does an annual update of core IT competencies required by the government, and has new programs in online career development and mentoring.

OPM has also tried to address the worker shortage. In January, it established special higher salary rates for 33,000 federal IT specialists, scientists, and engineers. It also issued a new classification standard for IT specialist positions to reflect emerging technologies.

In addition, OPM has tested a new and more-flexible approach to setting qualifications for IT work. OPM Director Kay Coles James told the July 31 subcommittee hearing that the government's effective response to the Y2K threat "shows that our information technology workforce can rise to meet extraordinary challenges."

But NAPA, in a March report, said that the new OPM rates "are helpful but do not go far enough to address the range of recruitment and retention issues with which ... agencies are dealing." The academy also noted the lengthy political and administrative negotiations necessary to implement the higher salaries.

"There is a real tug-of-war going on with the federal government workforce," the ITAA's Grkavac said. Top talent cut loose by failed dot-coms in the past year has been getting snapped up by federal vendors, she said. Grkavac noted that contracting with the government is appealing because it is relatively recession-proof and reliable.

"In times of downturn, the government still pays," she said. "It may pay slowly, but it pays."

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