Local Governments Face IT Talent Squeeze

Tech companies aren’t the only organizations scrambling to find qualified tech professionals. Local governments are feeling the pinch, as well. A big reason: Senior government IT executives are preparing to retire and potential replacements are few and far between, according to Government Technology.

Corpus-Christi-ThumbnailThe recession has kept the problem at bay for a while, with its budget cutbacks, layoffs and caps on hiring. Local CIOs outsourced IT systems, brought in consultants and took advantage of computer services and software on the cloud. Now, however, as the economy begins to improve, local governments will renew their hiring of IT workers, albeit slowly.

Officials are already having problems finding the people they need. Corpus Christi, Texas, CIO Michael Armstrong leads 63 technical and 25 call center employees who serve 3,000 city workers. He told Government Technology that he can’t find professionals with specialized skills like database administration, data architecture and network design. After six months of looking for two Oracle database administrators, Armstrong contracted out the work and shifted to hosted applications.

Corpus Christi is working with Texas A&M’s local Computer Science department to find new staff. However, only nine people graduated with computer science degrees last year, and they didn’t have the skills that are currently in demand. “We don’t need computer scientists who design computers or write operating systems,” Armstrong said. “I need people who have more of a business focus. We’re not seeing as many people come out of college with useful degrees.”

Private Sector Competition

Another problem is that local governments are competing with the private sector for IT workers. In Austin, Google and AT&T are rolling out a gigabit Internet service, which could ramp up tech startup activity in the area. “It takes us about 240 days to fill a vacant position,” said Austin CIO Stephen Elkins. “So even if we get a two week notice, and even if we have someone there to back that individual up, it still leaves a hole.”

Another problem: About 30 percent of Elkins’ staff is eligible to retire within the next five years. To prepare for their departures, he cross-trains as much as possible. The city also brings back skilled retirees until full-time employees can be found. The city can’t match private-sector pay, Elkins admits, but he wants to remain competitive with other local governments.

So what’s the solution? Government Technology says that officials should “encourage retirees to phase out gradually” and make sure their job descriptions are more realistic. It also encourages them to reduce the time it takes to hire, so they don’t lose a strong candidate to another employer. Additionally, the magazine suggests, local governments should raise their profiles to recruit tech professionals away from the private sector and promote the fact that the work they do makes a difference to the community.

4 Responses to “Local Governments Face IT Talent Squeeze”

  1. Fred Bosick

    “We don’t need computer scientists who design computers or write operating systems,” Armstrong said. “I need people who have more of a business focus. We’re not seeing as many people come out of college with useful degrees.”

    IT people are not business people. That’s why you have executives and program managers. It’s not the fault of IT degree holders. If we had wanted to get into business issues, we’d get MBAs instead. Maybe they need to look into the mirror to find out why too few grads are available. Business certainly shares some of the blame.

    This is just a part of the problem here. There is no way the city of Corpus Christie cannot find Oracle DBAs, unless they’re trying to pay less than $30/hr. plus benefits. There are plenty of people ready to work. They might be older and not quite have every requirement the job posting asks for. Also, demagogues are vilifying public sector employees at every turn and trying to steal their retirement benefits.Ultimately, it comes down to inviting and encouraging potential applicants, not taking private business’ stance of, “Americans are too stupid to do IT and we shouldn’t have to pay and treat them as professionals.”

  2. I wouldn’t.

    First, local governments don’t pay anything. They want the same requirements and skill set as jobs in the private sector, yet want to pay a fraction of the amount. Ain’t gonna happen.

    Second, with local and state governments slashing benefits, pensions and other once-guaranteed perks across the board, oftentimes eliminating them altogether, its become far less desirable to work in the public sector. The guaranteed benefits were the selling point, and without them, its there’s little point in going this route.

    Lastly, the nature of the work demands cutting edge, up-to-date technologies with the latest training on this or that system or software. Governments tend to lag far behind the private sector here, with systems sometimes a few decades old or worse, relegating any poor souls to the ancient knowledge department, the death knell of an IT resume. And good luck convincing your manager to send you to a seminar or training course, since they’re deathly afraid you’ll leave. You’ll wind up feeling stuck, and the reality is you’ll be stuck.

    In the end, its just not worth it to work for an IT department at any level of government, you’ll do more harm to your resume in the end than good. However, if its the difference between putting food on the table and starving, I suppose you could tolerate it for awhile, but not much longer than that.

  3. I think there is another factor that might be working against the public sector: status quo. Unlike the private sector which makes recruiting efforts to hire top candidates, the public sector is looking for individuals that conform to an archaic bureaucracy. They look for individuals who are willing to wait in a long line for the next promotion – not the line for the best skillful but whose time-duration matters — and individuals whose growth aspirations do not conflict with the organization’s way of doing business.
    Case in point, not too long ago I had an interview with a public organization. Several times I was praised about my background and knowledge. Following the first interview, I was quickly called the next day for the second round. That was a plus for them since the public sector is not known for their quick response. But in hindsight this was a rare moment for them.
    During the second interview I was reminded of the many reasons why I should discard their offer. The interviewer mentioned the lengthy process of promotion, the almost dead-end and non-technical environment of the position (truly this was a technical position), and the limitations to venturing into other projects within the organization. It was all about the negatives and less about the pluses of working with the organization. But of course why should it change since he probably went through the same process when he was hired.
    Finally, due to the current economic activity all industries are struggling, both private and public sectors. But I think the public sector should be more creative if they want to keep talented individuals.