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Government Gains Ground

Federal I.T. workers move ahead of private sector in some skills, but lag in database, net, and development.

Government I.T. workers are ahead of their private-sector peers in skills related to server technologies, such as Linux, Unix, and Windows NT and 2000. Yet, private-sector IT workers' skills still exceed their government counterparts in programming languages, application development, networking, database, and Internet skills.

Those findings come from analysis of the IT skill-assessment tests of more than 11,200 workers by Brainbench Inc., a company that provides online certification testing. Brainbench found that government workers scored 3% to 5% higher than their private-sector peers in tests related to server operating systems.

That could be because IT administrators in government are more likely to have to control access to information on multiple levels based on people's government security classifications and requirements. "Those kinds of statutory security requirements don't exist in the private sector," says Ray Bjorklund, VP at Federal Sources, a market-research firm specializing in government IT.

chartAlso, government jobs tend to emphasize specific skills, as opposed to the private sector, where employees have more incentive to build a diverse set of abilities. For example, government workers in security-related IT jobs are conditioned to polish their skills as specialists in that arena. "The government does a lot of its hiring internally because these workers meet security requirements," says Mayi Canales, CEO of consulting firm M2 Strategies and former acting CIO at the U.S. Treasury.

Brainbench's testing suggests that private-sector IT workers in general have substantially better skills in several areas, particularly application development and programming languages. Government workers scored 17% lower than their private-sector peers in those skills. Private-sector workers also scored better in database, networking, Internet, and hardware-maintenance skills. Brainbench CEO Michael Russiello says the government frequently outsources jobs requiring such skills.

Government jobs are starting to look a lot better these days. Government has been at a disadvantage in hiring, especially during the dot-com boom, because commercial employers offered higher salaries and more generous perks, particularly stock options. These days, with corporate IT spending down and government IT spending increasing since Sept. 11, 2001, the interest in federal jobs has risen. Canales says the federal government's biggest IT talent demand is for experienced managers who can oversee large-scale projects across multiple agencies, including the deployment of packaged software.

The U.S. government is trying to make its jobs more attractive. Following recommendations of the federal CIO Council and the National Academy of Public Administration, it's trying to simplify an often-arduous hiring process that can still take three to nine months, Bjorklund says. The feds are also reworking IT pay scales to make salaries closer to private-sector salaries, but Bjorklund says the gaps still remain.

Yet it's not as if a laid-off corporate IT worker can walk down Pennsylvania Avenue and pick up a job. While government IT spending is one of the few bright spots in a depressed tech economy, jobs are growing slowly. Says Bjorklund, "The federal government isn't hiring as aggressively as you might think."

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