August 1, 2013 By Brian Heaton
As baby boomers near retirement age, public-sector CIOs are faced with numerous staffing challenges. They must replace the technical knowledge and expertise of technologists leaving the workforce, and it must be done in a rapidly changing field where today’s skill sets might not be relevant in the near future.
Those issues aren’t new, but in many state and municipal governments, the percentage of IT workers eligible for retirement in the next five to 10 years has skyrocketed, making it a more immediate problem. With mass exodus of experience a distinct possibility, the situation has forced CIOs to re-evaluate the makeup of their IT workforce and how to attract young talent to public service.
The prevailing thought of many IT leaders is that if they invest in well rounded personnel with leadership skills, they can hang onto up-and-coming employees by moving them up the chain of command quickly and giving them diverse project responsibilities. To do that, however, the type of job candidate that government IT departments are looking for is evolving.
It’s no longer good enough to be the best and brightest when it comes to server maintenance or programming. As many public-sector IT “lifers” who are experts on a particular system step down, CIOs plan to replace them with people they can groom for multiple jobs.
Ohio is a great example, with approximately 2,500 IT workers across 26 agencies and 70 boards and commissions. And in the coming years, nearly one-third of those employees are eligible for retirement.
Instead of rehiring the same position when an employee leaves, Ohio CIO Stu Davis is looking at the departures as a way to reduce the complexity of the state’s infrastructure through consolidation and a transformation of the existing workforce. Current employees will be considered for promotion, and new hires will be brought in at a lower level, trained and set on a path that helps them transition into IT leadership roles.
Photo: Ohio CIO Stu Davis sees upcoming retirements as a way to remake the state’s IT workforce.
Davis explained that Ohio has had situations where an agency might have had a staff of 10 IT people and lost its top three workers to retirement. Through an IT workforce transformation plan, he hopes to “fill the gap” with similarly skilled workers from other departments.
“We want to be able to pull people from the agencies who are familiar with those systems in some fashion or another,” Davis said. “Not everyone will know the application, but certainly they know how to care for a server. And we can leverage them while we look at a shared solution down the road. That’s what we’ve been trying to pontificate and evangelize, and so far it seems to be working.”
The “silver tsunami” is also crashing down on Tennessee’s IT workforce. State CIO Mark Bengel explained that losing IT employees to retirement is particularly challenging in Nashville, where the unemployment rate for technology workers is just 2.8 percent. The state has a hard time competing with the private sector for young technologists.
To address the issues, Tennessee developed the Next Generation IT initiative, in which the state will focus on meeting future staffing needs by growing its talent pool through an investment in technical, communications and leadership training.
Tennessee has moved its IT hiring focus to entry-level positions through partnerships with state colleges and universities in order to get talent through the state’s door. By standardizing the state’s methodologies and practices across agencies, IT leaders can promote from within and hopefully retain promising employees.
To that end, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration has authorized a program whereby all 1,600 state IT employees will reapply for their jobs. The idea is to align people with the appropriate job classifications to make the hiring and retention processes easier so the right staff members have the appropriate levels of knowledge, skills and abilities.
The state’s old IT job classifications were catch-all titles from decades ago and out of date with today’s skill sets. So modernizing that system was necessary to ensure that the Next Generation IT initiative would work. Bengel said that with the changes in place, the governor put a significant monetary investment behind the idea, committing $2.5 million per year for a training academy for Tennessee’s IT employees.
As people retire, Tennessee will have a new IT organizational chart that features technical and management tracks to help reward and promote workers who are qualified to advance into other roles. At the same time, new hires will help build and grow the foundation of the state’s IT team.
“We only go to the outside as an absolute last resort, so we’re pulling people up into the next level of their career and training them on an upward path,” Bengel said.
Competition from the private sector in a rebounding economy doesn’t help matters. Even if an agency successfully replaces a retiree, retaining the new employee can be equally difficult. As in most fields, money talks and makes an impact on tech-savvy workers who are weighing career prospects.
But it’s not just the almighty dollar that sways technologists to pursue a private-sector career. The technology they get to work on can be a sizable deciding factor as well.
Al Short, CIO of the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration (MMVA), said his team is responsible for a COBOL-based legacy system that’s used to license drivers and register vehicles. Many IT staff members who work on that mainframe system are nearing retirement age, and Short is struggling with how it’s going to be maintained. Short knows he must modernize existing infrastructure while also having staff members capable of running the old mainframe.
Photo: State hiring rules make it tough to retain promising interns, says Al Short, CIO of the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration.