You might expect that federal, state and local government agencies—long treated by IT professionals as the ugly stepsisters of potential employers—would be looking a lot more attractive these days.
After all, the sagging economy has erased a growing number of private-sector IT jobs, making the relative security of the public sector more appealing. At the same time, many public agencies have spent the last year boosting salaries and cutting hiring red tape to make themselves more desirable as employers.
Unfortunately for managers of public-sector IT organizations, however, as far as most IT pros are concerned, working for the government is still not an alluring proposition. Although CIOs at government agencies say theyre receiving more résumés in the current down economy, IT professionals with the most sought-after skills are still slow to actually sign on in the public sector.
“Things would have to get a lot worse before I ever considered the public sector,” said Steve Farr, director of IT at Salerno/Livingston Architects, a private company in San Diego. “I would see it as a step back in terms of salary and in terms of the flexibility of the work environment.”
Farrs attitude is typical of most in IT, according to David Foote, president and chief research officer at IT salary research company Foote Partners LLC, in New Canaan, Conn. Although the sellers market in IT jobs has come, at least temporarily, to an end, “if it really came down to accepting a job in the public sector, 80 to 90 percent of IT people would finally say no,” Foote said.
Why? Public-sector IT recruiters continue to battle against several disadvantages, beginning with salaries that consistently lag behind those available in the private sector (see chart). In addition, Foote said, many IT pros believe that moving to the public sector would make it harder for them to work with the latest technologies, that theyd have to sacrifice workplace and work-hour flexibility, and that simply going through the public-sector hiring process would involve too much time and red tape.
Fixing Whats Broken
Fixing Whats Broken
Over the last two years, as competition for IT skills rose, many local, state and federal government agencies have been working hard to correct these disadvantages. Many agencies, for example, have tried to both cut hiring red tape and give themselves more salary flexibility by turning to whats known as broadbanding of job classifications. That means replacing lots of narrowly focused job classifications with a few more general classifications that are easier to fill and carry wider, more flexible salary ranges. According to a report last year from the Council of State Governments, in Lexington, Ky., 65 percent of state governments are moving toward broadbanding.
One is the state of Arizona. There, CIO Rick Zelznak said, 15 IT job categories have been boiled down to six. At the same time, the ranges for the highest and lowest salaries in each category—which had typically been between $7,000 and $10,000—are now $30,000 to $40,000, depending on a candidates experience and other qualifications. That, Zelznak said, gives state IT recruiters more flexibility to compete on salary. Along with the economic slump, its helped increase the flow of résumés from IT pros.
“Whereas before we used to get 20 or 30 résumés when we posted an agency CIO job, now were getting 100 plus,” said Zelznak, in Phoenix. Zelznak couldnt say, however, if that increased résumé flow has resulted in the state filling positions faster.
Public-sector agencies have taken other steps to improve IT recruitment practices. Agencies such as the U.S. State Department and the state of Kansas, for example, have begun offering recruitment and retention bonuses to attract and keep IT professionals. Others have begun removing IT jobs entirely from the civil service system to be able to offer high pay and benefits such as flexible work conditions not common in government. One example is the city of San Diego. According to a March report by the National Academy of Public Administration, in Washington, San Diego has created a separate nonprofit corporation—with a separate compensation structure—to manage IT services.
Despite such efforts, however, public agencies have not been able to reap an IT recruitment harvest, even at a time when private-sector hiring is slowing, experts say. Besides the persistent salary gap between public and private sectors, one big reason is that, with tax revenues slipping along with the economy, public agencies themselves have been forced to cut back on IT hiring. California Gov. Gray Davis, for example, has ordered a hiring freeze. And, in Arizona, which is facing a $1.6 billion revenue shortfall this year, some IT projects and some IT hiring have been slowed.
At the same time, many public agencies are just beginning to work through the time-consuming process of updating IT job classifications and salaries. The state of Connecticut, for example, before it can broadband IT job classifications, must negotiate changes with the union—the Connecticut State Employee Association—which represents state IT and other workers. Although state CIO Rock Regan describes union officials as “very motivated” to bring the classification changes about, the process has taken time. “Long term, I think well be in a better position when the market changes again,” said Regan, in Hartford. “Were doing some foundation things that will improve the [IT recruitment] process.”
Experts, however, warn that public agencies had better not take too much time making themselves more attractive to IT professionals. The economic downturn notwithstanding, the long-term demand for IT skills will overwhelm the supply, experts say. And, according to the recent National Academy of Public Administration report on IT hiring in the public sector, half of all IT workers currently on the federal payroll will be eligible to retire in the next five years.