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12/6/2001
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Public Sector Job-Appeal Improves

Staffing prospects better for local and state governments as tech layoffs continue

The job market for IT professionals continues to be dismal. In a recent RHI Consulting survey, four out of five CIOs say they have no plans to add staff in the first quarter of next year. But the bad job market means good news for one group: local and state governments that historically have had a hard time recruiting and keeping IT talent.

Several state and local governments say their IT hiring problems have abated in the past few months. "Our need has gone down dramatically," Massachusetts CIO David Lewis says. The state, like many local governments, recently instituted a hiring freeze, but until then it had no problem finding IT people, Lewis says. Retention has improved as well, as the economy has caused "people to stop jumping," he says.

The slowdown in the technology sector and the widespread layoffs at technology companies mean that government CIOs have more candidates to choose from when they do have open positions. The city of Phoenix, which is hiring workers with skills in enterprise resource planning systems and Unix database administration, has "an abundance of qualified applicants" to choose from, CIO Danny Murphy says. "For the eight to 10 applications we used to receive, we now get around 30 for one opening," he says. "We filled 10 positions in the past few months."

Another sign of the times: The city no longer pays high commission fees to recruiters. "Our own outreach efforts are sufficient," Murphy says.

A study that research firm Gartner conducted this summer shows that city, county, and state governments had difficulty finding IT professionals willing to accept jobs in the public sector, which usually pays less than private-sector IT jobs. The study looked at 28 states and 40 of the nation's largest cities and counties. Of those, four out of five municipalities and nearly 90% of state governments said they faced a critical staff shortage. The greatest problem was finding workers with advanced or intermediate skill levels.

The discrepancy between pay for public-and private-sector IT employees is significant, according to InformationWeek's National IT Salary Survey of 24,700 respondents. The median base salary for government IT managers is $70,000; the median pay for an IT staffer is $56,000. That's well below the median of $82,000 and $60,000 paid to private-sector IT managers and staffers, respectively.

Many IT professionals are taking their first look at positions in the public sector. "People are more flexible because they want to be employed," says Ryan Gilmore, Silicon Valley branch manager for IT recruitment firm RHI Consulting. During the last quarter, he's seen a noticeable increase in the number of IT professionals taking pay cuts to accept government IT jobs.

The attacks of Sept. 11 and "the new patriotism" that has resulted may have helped fuel the trend, Gartner research director Bill Keller says. Having a job that involves serving the public makes working for the government more appealing. But CIOs and human-resources executives need to develop strategies to keep qualified workers, he says, because once there's an economic turnaround the new hires may jump to the private sector.

"There's no problem finding people, but will they stay when the world turns?" asks Massachusetts CIO Lewis, who's making a concerted effort to market the benefits of a state job, which include requiring less travel and flexible work hours.

The lack of jobs in the private sector is behind the boom in interest in government IT jobs. The IT unemployment rate in September and October was the highest in those months in more than a decade, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, which compiled statistics at the request of InformationWeek from three IT-related job categories. Among computer systems analysts and scientists, computer programmers, and computer operators categories, 147,000 are out of work and looking for jobs, the government agency says. The IT labor force hit a record level of 2.94 million workers.

The IT job market is unlikely to show improvement soon. The RHI Consulting survey earlier this month asked 1,400 CIOs about their IT hiring plans for the first quarter of 2002. Only 15% plan to increase their staffs, while about 4% expect to lay off staff. Nearly 80% expect no change in their IT staffing during that quarter.

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