Low federal turnover rates, coupled with little demand for IT jobs at the federal level, means there aren't a lot of options for would-be job-hoppers.

Johanna Ambrosio, Tech Journalist

January 31, 2006

4 Min Read

There was a recent survey that said a majority of tech workers are fed up with both their current jobs and their existing employers. This survey was not specific to the government; rather, it was conducted by an industry trade group of IT staffers in general.

But it got me wondering about the job-satisfaction level of IT folks in federal and state government, especially in light of the much-feared brain drain.

According to the Partnership for Public Service, 44% of all federal workers become eligible to retire in the next four years, and another 61% of those remaining are eligible four years after that. All told, some 60% of federal workers are over the age of 45, versus 30% of private-industry workers who fall into that age range, the Partnership says.

Those retirement numbers are on top of the 200,000 federal workers who are expected to quit to work elsewhere, just because they want to.

Between last year and this year, some 3,292 IT professionals are expected to be hired by the federal government, according to other Partnership numbers. The lion's share of these jobs, as you might guess, are expected to be filled in the Department of Defense (1,472), followed by Commerce (376), State (317) and Health and Human Services (300).

The number of IT openings pales next to expectations for other job types during 2005 and 2006, including medical and public health professionals (around 26,000), engineers (15,180), and administration and program management (14,500).

So there's not a huge pool of IT jobs available for would-be hoppers to change to. One possible reason for that, in addition to demand, of course: Traditionally, federal and state employees have had among the lowest turnover of any sector--that is, the number of people who leave voluntarily. The federal turnover rate averages between 1% and 2% a month, lower than most private-industry sectors. Manufacturing and professional services, for instance, are double that rate, in most months.

Still and all, the number of government workers taking a hike is higher now than it's been. Between August 2003 and September 2004, for example, around 7% of both federal and state workers voted with their feet. This number was around the same as the previous year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Seeing the turnover rate rise--and thinking about how much worse it can get due to retirement and other reasons--is prompting some big changes in how the feds are approaching retention and recruitment. There's a Presidential Management Intern program to recruit new talent as well as mid-career folks, more benefits including the promise of student-loan repayment, and more flexibility in general. The Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) is moving from Virginia to Maryland and, rather than risk losing its 4,000-plus staffers, is offering a more aggressive telecommuting policy.

Before, employees were allowed to telecommute only one day every two weeks. Now that's up to two days a week. In fact, according to the Office of Personnel Management, around 19% of federal employees telecommute these days, up from 4% in 2001.

Perhaps the biggest change, though, is an initiative to begin market- and performance-based pay for federal workers. This means, in theory, less of a gap between what an Oracle specialist in San Francisco could earn from private industry versus in government. Traditional federal pay scales have been based on seniority and the job description, with no heed to where the person is based, what the cost of living is in that location, or what the job might be worth on the 'outside.'

Early results in four demonstration projects that have implemented pay-for-performance are encouraging.

But progress is, as with anything government-related, painfully slow. The laws that would govern and oversee this new pay system haven't been introduced into Congress yet. There's debate over whether they're even needed. In the meantime, there is some pay flexibility allowed under current rules.

Still, I'm wondering if all this is enough. How are you doing? What would make you happy to get up each day and go to work? (Or are you already happy?) Is it just pay, or maybe more vacation or other perks?

As you think about this, I invite you to do a couple of things. First, participate in InformationWeek's salary survey. Second, drop me an email ([email protected]) and I'll publish some of your responses in another column at a later date.

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About the Author(s)

Johanna Ambrosio

Tech Journalist

Johanna Ambrosio is an award-winning freelance writer specializing in business and technology. She has been a reporter and an editor in the computer industry for over 25 years, covering virtually every technology topic, starting with 'office automation' in the 1980s, as well as management issues including ROI and how to attract and retain talent. Her work has appeared online and in print, in publications including Application Development Trends, Government Computer News, Crain's New York Business, Investor's Business Daily, InformationWEEK, and the Metrowest Daily News. She formerly worked at Computerworld, for which she held various positions, including online director. She holds a B.S. in technical writing from Polytechnic University in Brooklyn, N.Y., now the Tandon School of Engineering of New York University. She lives with her husband in a Boston suburb. Johanna's samples of her work are at https://www.clippings.me/jambrosio.

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