September 12, 2013 By Wayne Hanson
Corpus Christi, Texas, CIO Michael Armstrong has a long list of accomplishments in local government information technology, but even he is daunted by the current IT workforce situation. Armstrong, who oversees 63 technical and 25 call center staff, serves 3,000 city employees, but can't find some of the specialized IT skills he needs, such as database administrators, data architects and network designers.
Last April at a meeting of CIOs in Nashville, Tenn., he said he needed two Oracle dababase administrators and joked that he was willing to let them live at his house if they'd come to work for him. Six months later he still hadn't been able to recruit even one, and while he said they would still be welcome, he's since contracted out the Oracle DBA work. He's got an ERP replacement under way right now that will be hosted, and says Corpus Christi hasn't brought an application in-house for three years. And even though the recession is supposedly over, Armstrong sees a perfect storm approaching that will only make things worse.
For starters, 50 percent of Armstrong's staff are eligible for retirement, and when they go, they take with them a wealth of experience and high-level skills. "I can deal with a few retirements a year," he said, "but if next year I lose 25 people, I'm in serious trouble." And he thinks that next year, the Affordable Care Act could accelerate retirements.
"What keeps a lot of people here," he said, "is the 10-15 year gap between having enough years in to retire but not being old enough to qualify for Medicare. If they were to retire, insurance becomes essentially unaffordable. So that's kept a lot of people here longer than they otherwise would have stayed." He jokes that if retirement-age staff pack their things and head for the exits, he's going with them.
On the other end of the scale, Armstrong says he can't offer a competitive salary compared to the private sector. "We see a difference in the kind of person who wants to come in to the field," he said. "They want to work for Google or be the VP of their own company when they get out of school."
Armstrong works with the Corpus Christi branch of Texas A&M's Computer Science Department. But while the university awarded 2,500 degrees last year, only nine were in computer science, and those graduates did not necessarily have the skills he needs. "We don't need computer scientists that design computers or write operating systems," he said. "I need people to come in and manage who have much more of a business focus." He does think the university is beginning to get the picture, and says he's having some luck with two-year colleges, but overall, he thinks the pool of qualified people is shrinking. "We're not seeing as many people come out of college with useful degrees."
And while Corpus Christi has many attractive features as a family town -- a warm climate, museums, a coastal location, AA baseball, a university and so on -- Armstrong admits it's a bit isolated geographically, and according to several local newspaper columns, there's not enough for young singles to do.
"Given the financial straits of government," Armstrong said, "I think it is going to be very difficult for government, especially cities our size, to maintain a really qualified workforce with the advanced skills that we need. The work is going to be there, but if I can't hire the people to do the work, I'm going to have to move the work." So as the workforce changes, the technical challenges change and the model of computing evolves, Armstrong says it's time to shift gears.
Many efficiencies were baked into local governments and IT shops during the recession, and Armstrong says those won't go away, and he does not expect hiring to revert to pre-recession levels. But he doesn't necessarily think that's a bad thing. "Whatever gets the job done, if someone can do it cheaper and more reliably than I can, then they should be doing it." So Armstrong envisions a much more contract-based IT organization, with staff managing those contracts and handling integration.
Hiring "kids" Armstrong said, is a catch-22, because after spending the time and effort to train them, they can go to the private sector for bigger salaries. So he's looking for new hires with families who have ties to the local community.
Armstrong says the problem of workforce is not unique to Corpus Christi. "We're not in a unique situation," he said. "Almost everyone I talked to in Austin is having the same problem. It's becoming a bigger problem faster than I think we thought it would. It's on everybody's plate right now. It's part of the challenge and it happens whether you want it to or not."