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.
Federal agencies are headed toward a cruel dilemma. Just as new technologies promise a once-in-a-generation opportunity to recast U.S. government operations and slash costs, thinning ranks of mid-tier IT workers and a graying federal IT workforce suggest that agencies won't have the right mix of staffing and skills to take advantage of those technologies.
It's not that the federal government hasn't been hiring people. The number of permanent federal IT employees is up 20% since 2008, in part to support growing cybersecurity demands in federal agencies. Despite a series of federal budget cuts including the sequestration this year, the number of permanent federal IT employees has increased steadily every year since 2008, from 67,300 to nearly 81,000 as of September 2012, and the growth only leveled off in the first quarter of 2013, according to figures from the Office of Personnel Management (OPM).
And the federal government is offering competitive wages. Government IT staffers today are better paid than many in IT, contrary to popular wisdom, ranking 10th among 30 U.S. industries, according to InformationWeek's 2013 Salary Survey. While government IT managers don't fare as well because they aren't eligible for the same kinds of bonuses as their private-sector peers, they still rank in the middle (16th) in terms of total compensation out of 30 industries surveyed.
But three years of salary freezes and broadening uncertainty about the future funding of many government programs have taken their toll on federal employees. That uncertainty grows more entrenched each year as Congress lunges from one stop-gap funding measure to another -- and as lawmakers once again threaten to leave 2.1 million federal employees on the brink of a government shutdown Oct. 1.
Those and other factors have spurred the largest wave of retirements across the federal government in nearly two decades, with about 80,000 federal employees -- about 5% of the workforce -- expected to retire this year, according to OPM. It also is prompting many mid-level federal IT specialists, in particular, to look elsewhere for work.
Of greater concern to many government IT experts, however, is the resulting makeup of the federal IT workforce. Agencies are being left with a disproportionate number of older IT workers who know how to run legacy systems, and a shortage of younger workers who've grown up in the age of Web-based and mobile computing and who represent the next generation of federal IT leaders.
An analysis by InformationWeek of federal employment data reveals that 46% of the 80,919 IT workers permanently employed by the federal government as of September 2012 were age 50 or older -- including a significant number (more than 10%) who were 60 or older. The rest of the workforce breaks down like this: 32% were 40-49; 17% were 30-39; and 4% were under 30.
Put into starker relief: There are now nearly 11 times more federal IT workers aged 50 or above than there are IT employees under the age of 30 -- up from nine times more just two years earlier.
"We're seeing the retirement wave pick up at a measurable pace. And we know the 40-to-50-year-old cohort is the lowest it's been in 10 years," said Stan Soloway, president and chief executive of the Professional Services Council, which represents the contracting community. "So you're having a diminished workforce -- and (an emptying) bathtub in the middle ranks," said Soloway. "It's not pretty."
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