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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