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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.

Van Hitch, who retired as Justice Department CIO in 2011 and now works for Deloitte Consulting, is among veteran federal executives who believe the structural gaps in staffing pose serious concerns for senior management.

"The move to the cloud and IT services may offset the loss of some of the back-office IT technicians," he said. But "it will also accentuate the need for skills currently in short supply," especially for cybersecurity, project management and acquisition.

"I believe declining budgets and the move toward the cloud and IT services are not blips, but long-term trends that CIOs must plan for over the foreseeable future," Hitch said. The loss of IT talent "could hurt agencies in accomplishing their missions," unless agencies "find ways to challenge and reward their best performers and manage the overall attrition of the workforce."

Collateral Damage

The budget turmoil is spilling over into the government contracting community, which historically fills the gaps when government talent is in short supply.

Conventional system integrators and IT service providers, from Lockheed Martin to IBM and many others, have repositioned themselves quickly to provide IT services for tasks such as helping agencies move their operations to the cloud and securing data for an increasingly mobile workforce. But long-term uncertainty over program funding, and a more cutthroat contracting environment, are creating problems for contractors trying to hold onto government business -- and their best talent.

"There seems to be very little awareness in Congress of the chaos in budgeting right now," said Soloway, and the impact that's having on agencies, contractors and their employees. That chaos, he and others believe, is straining agencies already under budgetary duress and will make it hard to attract and harder to hire the IT talent the government sector needs to operate more efficiently.

"There's a massive battle for talent, particularly between Wall Street and Silicon Valley," said Soloway. "Government contractors are competing against that." Because of the political uncertainty around budgets, contractors aren't so much "losing their talent to other contractors, but to the outside world."

Soloway, as someone representing government contractors, has a particular dislike for the growing use of "lowest price, technically acceptable" (LPTA) contracts.

"It's not just a theory, it's a legal construct" that requires agencies to award contracts to the company that offers the lowest price, as long as it meets the minimum technical qualifications, said Soloway. 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 feeders," with the talent and results to match, said Soloway.

Linda Rix, co-CEO of Avue Technologies, which specializes in government hiring, estimates that for every IT worker employed by the government, there is a second IT specialist working for a contractor on a government project. A loss or lowering of talent in the contracting community is likely to have a material impact on the quality and timeliness of federal IT work, Soloway and others believe.

"There's no doubt LPTA is becoming the dominant acquisition strategy for government," said Soloway. He warned that unless federal agencies rethink their acquisition approaches, the caliber of contractors willing to work with the government will decline, as will the pool of talent they employ.


Surge In Retirements

The shifts in the federal IT workforce are playing out against a backdrop of federal employees retiring in large numbers not seen since the Clinton administration, which offered early retirement incentives as part of its "reinvent government" campaign. With nearly 30% of all executive-branch workers eligible to retire by 2016, fed watchers worry that the government is about to lose a significant amount of management expertise and institutional knowledge.

Office of Personnel Management (OPM) associate director Angela Bailey isn't necessarily among them. Bailey has lived through three decades of retirement cycles in government and has learned that "retirement is a very personal decision," and not as much a function of eligibility as many believe. She also believes that experience is relative.

"If you have someone with a lot of COBOL experience, just because they're retiring with a wealth of institutional knowledge doesn't mean that's the knowledge we need going forward" as agencies move into more modern programming languages and cloud-based software. What does matter, Bailey said, is whether agency executives are "looking forward over the next three to five years at 'what talent do I need and how do I get it.'"

Bailey does think the wave of retirements is fueled by perceptions of government, and that makes it harder to retain and recruit high-performing employees. The "constant fed bashing and senseless sequestration" is wearing on those who put their "heart and soul into serving the American public ... especially those in leadership positions."

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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.
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: 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: 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: 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.
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