December 6, 2013 By Wayne Hanson
A little more than six years ago, as the economy careened toward the cliff we now call “The Great Recession,” a national study revealed that a large number of senior government IT executives were eligible for retirement, while recruiting new employees was increasingly difficult. “The upcoming drop-off in qualified IT employees to replace outgoing senior management and technical expertise appears to be certain and imminent,” the study concluded.
But the recession put the problem on hold. Baby boomers saw the value of their investments and home equities plummet and delayed retirement. Local governments slashed budgets and cut workforce headcount, or instituted furlough days. A few of them even went bankrupt under reduced revenue and unsustainable defined-benefit pension plans. This pulled the rug out from under government employment’s main appeal in the past — stability and good benefits.
Now, as the economy bounces back, cities and counties again face a tough workforce situation with some notable differences. When local governments shut the doors on hiring for six years, potential employees — who ordinarily would have been hired and spent years learning the ropes and honing their skills — went somewhere else, while baby boomers who would have retired a few at a time are now ready to depart en masse.
Local governments won’t likely replace those employees on a one-to-one basis, and when they do hire, they’ll probably be seeking workers with different skills than their predecessors.
To survive six years of recession, cities and counties outsourced IT systems, hired consultants instead of full-time staff members, and they embraced cloud computing, shared services, virtualization and software as a service. Those hard-won efficiencies will continue, say most CIOs we interviewed.
There are other forces at work too, which may prevent local governments from returning to business as usual. For instance, a change by the Governmental Accounting Standards Board in how public agencies report pension liabilities will force new transparency.
“The unstated and often unfunded pension liabilities of state and local governments will be a drag on government hiring and growth,” said Cate Long, writing last year in Reuters’ MuniLand blog. “Governments will need to embrace other strategies to provide services more efficiently.”
How many IT employees will local governments need in the post-recession world? What skills must these workers bring to the job, and where will they be found? Those are the challenges confronting local government CIOs across the U.S. Here’s how some are approaching the issue.
Corpus Christi, Texas, CIO Michael Armstrong has a long list of accomplishments, but he’s daunted by the current IT workforce situation. Armstrong oversees 63 technical and 25 call center employees who serve 3,000 city workers. He can’t find employees with specialized IT skills, like database administrators, data architects and network designers.
Last April at a meeting of local government CIOs in Nashville, Tenn., Armstrong said he needed two Oracle database 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 recruited even one. Ultimately Armstrong contracted out the Oracle DBA work. And he’s shifting to hosted applications, including a cloud-based ERP deployment that’s under way now. Armstrong said Corpus Christi hasn’t deployed an in-house application for three years.
Strategies for Building Your IT Workforce
Although shifting to managed services and boosting regional collaboration can help, there’s no avoiding the fact that local governments will need to replace at least some of their retirees. Building a pipeline that taps into universities or community colleges is crucial for filling the bench with new talent.
Digital Communities and e.Republic’s Center for Digital Government meet with local government officials around the country. These conversations have led to a number of predictions about the future of government employment and the nature of the work itself:
Front Row L to R: Internship Coordinator Jim Sampson; former intern and current DES employee Mai Braden; intern Jack Wambeke; former intern and current DES employee Frank Welter; former intern Jeremy Verville; Desktop Support Manager Michael Christopher.
Back Row L to R: Network Operations Manager Rick Griffith; intern Donovan Kochta; intern Nichalus Potts; former intern Ryan Carlson; former intern and current Washington state employee Chris Decker; former intern and current DES employee Patrick Slattery; Enterprise Infrastructure and Operations Manager Nick Fuchs.
Not Shown: former intern and current DES employee Benson Adams; intern Adrian Roberts; intern Daniel Splitter; intern James Hallett.
Nick Fuchs, DES enterprise infrastructure and operations manager, credits Sampson with much of the program’s success. “He is a true mentor,” said Fuchs, who is Sampson’s boss. “He takes care of them and guides them. He’s former military, and he really exemplifies camaraderie. He’s really committed to making these kids successful.”
The internship program builds relationships, added Fuchs, which helps the department land and retain valuable employees even when it can’t match private-sector pay and perks. “We don’t have money to give them so we invest in on-the-job training,” he said. “We [also] look for loyalty, and the primary factor in that is that they like their supervisor and their work environment.”
To be sustainable, internship programs must be integrated into the culture of an agency, said Murrow. Otherwise they can disappear if a key supporter retires or takes a new job.
Interns also must have the skills to make meaningful contributions to the agencies in which they are placed, said Michael Jameson, an IT professor at SPSCC. “If the candidates are viable and positive, the entity begins to rely on them, and they won’t want to terminate the relationship,” he said. “That makes the internship self-perpetuating.”
What’s the best way to start building this type of talent pipeline? Get involved and be ready to act fast, said Kendall Lawrence, interim dean of career and applied technology at the North Harris campus of Houston’s Lone Star College. The college serves 90,000 students on six campuses, and about 300 students are enrolled in IT programs.
Although attending career days and similar events can be helpful, agencies must engage potential interns more directly. “We found it works better to schedule individual students for individual interviews,” said Lawrence. “We have rooms here that organizations use to interview students. That’s been really productive.” However, he cautioned that organizations meeting with students individually should come prepared to make an offer of some kind.
Joining advisory committees for local college internship programs helps to ensure that interns meet your agency’s requirements, adds Professor Kiwana Francis, who is responsible for placing IT interns at Lone Star. “We have city and government employees on our advisory team telling us what’s going on, how to better present our curriculum and to make changes if we need to,” she said. “Let the committee know what you need and how the workforce is changing in your environment.”
Regardless of how you hunt for new workers, get ready to manage them differently. Millennials don’t approach work like their parents did, and private industry is adjusting by offering flextime, more vacation and a better work-life balance.
Daphne Levenson, director of the Gulf States Regional Community Policing Institute, trains public safety agencies on hiring and retaining a new generation of employees. She says baby boomers often sacrificed family activities to meet job responsibilities. Divorce became more common, scattering kids from different marriages. Nearly half of American children are now raised by single parents.
Seeing this, millennials have opted to run their family lives differently, Levenson said. Don’t expect them to work 24-hour shifts, because they have their priorities arranged around family and friends. They don’t work for retirement, either, because they doubt retirement programs will be there when they get older. And they’re not afraid of frequent job changes.
So what does that mean regarding hiring and retaining millennials?
Parents would rather spend time with their kids than work overtime. Most would prefer extra vacation time to higher pay. They don’t see race, added Levenson, don’t exhibit sexism, and since many were raised by women, have no problems with female supervisors. But they don’t have much patience with older people who are unfamiliar with technology.
They also may not care for your attitude. In the past, government employment was prized — who cared what new hires thought? They had to learn the culture of government or there were plenty of others eager to take their place. Now the tables have turned, and governments must pay more attention to prospective staff members. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s a definite change in perspective.
Levenson said she often talks to young people who have visited government offices to pick up job applications, and nobody said hello or even looked up. That leads to stereotypes about government being bureaucratic, stuffy, rule-bound and unpleasant, she said.
But Scot Melland, a top executive for Dice.com, a career site for technology and engineering professionals, said public agencies can turn that image around by becoming more visible on campus. “Have some functions at your organization, run some contests, work with your community colleges, and build some excitement around your organization and what you’re doing,” he said.
After years of decline, colleges are starting to churn out more computer science majors, Melland added. And public-sector jobs have some real benefits for recent graduates. For instance, governments offer a chance to work on large-scale IT projects that make a real difference to communities, he said. But local governments must get better at talking to graduates about the kinds of projects they’re working on in order to generate excitement.
Another way to generate interest in government IT is through hackathons and similar activities. Participants have a set period of time — 48 hours over a weekend, for instance — to present an idea, assemble a team and build an app that solves a community problem. Last summer, for example, the White House backed a National Day of Civic Hacking that spurred nearly 100 hackathons around the country. One of those occurred in Minneapolis, and CIO Otto Doll was very pleased with the results.
Eight teams were formed during the Minneapolis hackathon. One group used public transit data and GPS to build an application showing users where they are located in the city, where the bus stations are located, where the buses are and when they will arrive at a particular station. Since the event, the team has continued to improve the app, adding a function that locates racks for the city’s bicycle sharing program and shows how many bikes are available.
Doll was amazed at the amount of talent that appeared — including one participant who was just 12 years old. “Programming is not for everybody,” he said. “It’s not a skill that’s commonly held. So to have these folks with the skill and the desire to help the city in a civic-minded way is impressive.”
Austin held three hackathons last year, said Matthew Esquibel, Internet services and IT applications manager for the city. He said the events are changing how potential employees think of government IT. “Typically we don’t get people out of college who say, ‘Oh I want to go work for government and do exciting, innovative things.’ But we’re starting to demonstrate that you can.”
Austin’s hackathons were part of the city’s partnership with Code for America. The events were built around Austin’s open data portal, which also inspired existing IT staff to use city data in new ways. “We were able to energize the civic community to develop a lot of apps,” Esquibel said.
Sometimes, just presenting the reality of what government does can change public perception. Rainette Stephens, staffing division administrator for the Louisiana State Civil Service, was seeking a way to reduce the number of new hires who quit. She wanted to give applicants a realistic look at what the job requires, what the workday is like and what skills are needed. So she made a series of short videos of state workers talking about what they do. Applicants for a systems administrator job, for example, can watch state employees like Regina Toliver or Adam Tidwell give a personal look at what their jobs entail.
Along the way, something else happened: “Government workers” were given a face and a name. There is no background music, professional directors or producers — everything is done by agency staff with inexpensive equipment — and other jurisdictions can do the same thing. Watch a few of the videos, like the one of Kedrieka Roberson talking about her job as a juvenile justice specialist. She admits that some of her clients have committed murders and rapes, and they “get in your face.” But she’s proud of what she does and it shows.
Tolstoy said that while everyone thinks of changing the world, no one thinks of changing himself. Technology has changed the world, and what’s left is the very difficult job of changing self. The recession compressed and delivered changes all at once. And government employment is no longer seen as a stable life-long career with early retirement and great benefits in an otherwise transitory world. It has acquired an old-fashioned stuffy look when viewed over the top of a mobile device or through Google Glass.
Changing self means reaching out, telling people what good things are being done in government. It means launching a hackathon, generating interest in city and county employment, going to college job fairs with the ability to make an offer, or providing bonuses to employees who recruit their friends. It means plugging the gaps as best one can, while building out a future workforce of millennials who have been shaped by powerful technology, quick access and continual connection, and who are trying to avoid their parents’ shortcomings.
There’s a backlog of IT needs in most cities and counties that can’t be handled by hanging on and hoping things will return to better days. Many CIOs told Digital Communities that the current situation is comparable to the shift from mainframe computing to distributed systems and the PC. It’s a big shift that will require some big ideas and hard work. And in many cities and counties, those changes already are under way.