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Federal IT Staffing Mess: Budget Chaos + Aging Workforce

Recurring budget questions and Congressional showdowns are driving away mid-rank IT talent, leaving an older workforce just when new talent is needed most.

IT workers are retiring at a slower rate than federal workers generally, and that might stem from a decision dating back to 2001 to let agencies pay IT specialists wages that are more competitive with the private sector, said Ira Hobbs, who served as deputy CIO at the Department of Agriculture at the time. The effort was part of a broader pay modernization initiative by OPM that was championed by Hobbs, who now consults on workforce issues.

Hobbs looks beyond the age mix of IT workers. "It doesn't matter if your workforce is old or your workforce is young. In every workforce, you need a level of diversity," he said. "Don't lose sight of the experience your older workers bring in terms of training and mentoring. The question is, are they making things work more efficiently and are they prepared for the future?"

Hobbs concedes that the thinning ranks of mid-tier IT staffers will make it harder for agencies to implement new technology solutions in the future. "The older a workforce is, the more risk averse it is and that can cause stagnation," he said.

Managing The Workforce, Not Just IT

Karen Evans is among those who opted to retire from government, in January 2009, following the change in administrations and 20 years in federal service. Her oversight of the government's $70-plus billion in annual IT spending as head of electronic government and IT in the Office of Management and Budget gave her a rich perspective on the changing mix of federal IT workers.

"I was always looking at workforce issues. You want to make sure you're grooming the next generation of leaders -- that you have people who can fill in the ranks and understand the mission, as well as the technology to accomplish it," said Evans, now national director for the U.S. Cyber Challenge, a program aimed at developing the future cyber workforce.

"It's not so much the age gap, but gaps in the (federal employment) grade structure," that concern Evans. "The mid-level is what's critical," she said, in order to "have stability for the organization so the projects you're working on can cross over from administration to administration."

However, Evans isn't as concerned that agencies won't be able to attract new talent. "I never found ... even during the dot-com boom that I had a hard time competing with private industry," she said. People are drawn to the stability in government compared with the private sector, she said, and they like the project experiences and accountability they get in government. Finding enough talent to keep up with certain needs, such as cybersecurity, remains a pressing concern though.

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Feds Are Still Hiring

John Palguta, VP for policy and research at the Partnership for Public Service, has seen these cycles before. Yes, there are frustrations of working for the government and living with its uncertainties. Still, he notes that of nearly 89,700 people hired by the federal government in 2012, 5.3% of them were IT workers. That makes IT the fifth most actively recruited occupation in government (after medical, clerical, investigative and other specialty jobs) according to a new federal hiring report released by the nonprofit group Sept. 10.

Palguta also believes worries about the recent spike in retirements and the potential loss of experience has been overplayed in the media, when viewed from a historical perspective.

He does remain concerned, however, about declining employee satisfaction ratings. "Sequestration is still creating lots of problems," he said and making it harder for agencies to recruit the talent they need. "It's not a question of bringing in warm bodies. It's a matter of bringing in some of the best talent in the country to do these jobs," he said.

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User Rank: Author
9/27/2013 | 1:48:09 PM
re: Federal IT Staffing Mess: Budget Chaos + Aging Workforce
The article in no way encourages government employers to discriminate based on age. It reports the facts: that the government agency employee base is getting older and agencies need to do something about it before retirements leave them short on people and critical skills. Any good public or private sector enterprise needs to be aware of such workforce trends.
User Rank: Author
9/26/2013 | 6:41:00 PM
re: Federal IT Staffing Mess: Budget Chaos + Aging Workforce
Thanks for commenting. If anything, I think what the data is saying is that government values and rewards those over 50 (and 60!) -- and probably more so than private industry does, although I didn't research that.

I completely agree, age is not an indicator of skill, nor necessarily a proxy for experience. What the data is suggesting is that the government is becoming a less friendly/appealing place for mid-career IT folks, whatever their skill; and that that has implications for potential shortages of essential talent and future leadership candidates that mustn't be overlooked.
User Rank: Apprentice
9/26/2013 | 5:01:12 PM
re: Federal IT Staffing Mess: Budget Chaos + Aging Workforce
Your article reeks of age discrimination. At a time many 50+ programmers are being dumped, and they still have to work at least 15 more years to retire, you are encouraging employers to discriminate against based on outmoded paradigms.

While it is concerning that many employees are nearing retirement age, age itself is not an indicator of skill set. While I started in 1969 punching cards, today I am pushing out a web app that uses JavaScript, AJAX, JQuery and Dojo. There is a constant refrain among professional IT that you have to relearn your job every 18 months. I started on mainframes, went through Prime Mini and Sun Unix Servers.I now work with Visual Studio and Apple's XCode. If an employee (and that includes some in their 30's who can't get past MS Desktops) won't keep up with the technology, by all means ease them out the door. But don't make those determinations based on age alone.
User Rank: Apprentice
9/26/2013 | 4:49:35 PM
re: Federal IT Staffing Mess: Budget Chaos + Aging Workforce
You are missing the main reason that this is happening.

As an example, I'm a former IT contractor with 30 years experience.
Can't buy an interview in private industry, so I try to go civil service as I was in the Navy which is where I learned electronics and software.

But what is this?
No matter how many times I try to re-do my resume to get me in the door, I can't get in.

So I think, I will go into an entry level position like laundry, clerk, or kitchen help so that I can get my foot in the door, and then I will work my way back up the ladder.

But what is this?
I'm not qualified for an entry level position.

Still jobless after ten years of trying to get back in, and depressed simply because people can't seem to grasp the fact that we have the skills to excel in these positions.

We simply can't get past the gate keepers.

Keep America At Work
User Rank: Author
9/25/2013 | 6:40:59 PM
re: Federal IT Staffing Mess: Budget Chaos + Aging Workforce
Lots of food for thought here. "What began as a contracting method designed to
drive down government's costs has in many cases led to government IT
projects being performed by companies frequently derided as "bottom
fishers," with the talent and results to match, said Soloway."

We have seen what bottom prices buy you in the private IT sector from service providers -- and it is not pretty. Given the complex security issues at play now, this situation is especially troubling. Bottom-tier IT contractor body shops serve one purpose and it is not quality. It is cost.

Regarding the disappearing bench talent, private sector CIOs struggle to retain the upper-middle ranks too. Are government IT leaders being rewarded for talent retention? Probably not.
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