Jul 14 2015

Public Sector Seeks to Solve Workforce Woes

CIOs adopt more proactive approaches to IT recruitment and retention.

Twenty-four: That number keeps Maine CIO Jim Smith up at night because it’s the percentage of the state’s 480 IT workers who are eligible to retire in the next two years.

“When you get to those numbers, your response has to be transformational, not incremental,” Smith says. The wave of baby boomers nearing retirement age includes Smith and half of his senior management team. “If you have 24 percent of your workforce leaving and it’s taking you four to six months to fill jobs, that’s a real problem.”

Many of Smith’s counterparts recognize recruitment and retention as a growing concern. A 2015 NASCIO state IT workforce study found that 92 percent of states say salary rates and pay grade structures present a challenge in attracting and retaining IT talent; 86 percent are challenged in recruiting new employees to fill vacant IT positions, and 46 percent report that it takes three to five months to fill senior-level IT positions.

During the worst of the recession, government workers postponed retirement because of the uncertainty of the economy, notes Leslie Scott, executive director of the National Association of State Personnel Executives. But as the economy picked up, so has the rate of retirement. “CIOs are looking at new ways to recruit and retain staff, but most states are seeing that compensation is falling so far behind the market rates that it’s difficult to be competitive.”


Percentage of state CIOs who say IT security positions are the most difficult to fill and retain

SOURCE: NASCIO, “State IT Workforce: Facing Reality with Innovation,” April 2015

As a result, public-sector IT leaders have adopted creative approaches to stave off the looming workforce shortages. These include hiring IT recruitment specialists; seeking pay scale flexibility; and increasing their focus on mentorships, internships and cooperative programs with universities.

When Smith became CIO of Maine three years ago, he created a director of workforce development position and hired Kelly Samson-Rickert to fill it. “I need someone focused on this 100 percent of the time,” Smith says, adding that Samson-Rickert holds a doctorate in organizational leadership and has focused on workforce development with nonprofits, higher education and Fortune 500 companies.

“I asked her to build an internship program and work on a veterans pipeline, and she has taken those ideas and run with them.”

Maine admits eight students per semester to its highly competitive internship program, which offers mentoring and a chance to solve real-world problems. The most recent cohort has been analyzing employment processes statewide.

“Amazingly enough, more than 75 percent of our interns so far have been hired as full-time employees,” Smith says. “That number is way more than I thought it was going to be.”

Actively Recruit

Colorado CIO Suma Nallapati has revamped hiring practices during her tenure with the state, which has approximately 900 IT employees in 70 locations. “The economic growth in Colorado is unprecedented, and we are competing for talent with the private sector,” she says. “We need to be innovative and proactive, not only in finding talent, but in retaining it. So ‘post and pray’ no longer works for us, particularly for programmers and developers.”

Nallapati hired Karen Wilcox as director of human resources within the Office of IT and recently added two recruitment specialists. Rather than simply post jobs online and wait for applicants to apply, Wilcox has taken an approach more typical of the private sector by identifying and courting top talent. Her recruiters pursue candidates through LinkedIn, Twitter and other social media. OIT is developing metrics to track success, such as a time-to-hire target of roughly 60 days and a reduced turnover rate, which has dropped from 14 percent to 10 percent in the last quarter.

The CIO also wants to correct the misperception that working for the state involves legacy systems. “We have an energizing environment, and we have to showcase that,” Nallapati says. “This is a progressive work experience — we work on the latest cloud technologies. We are the biggest implementer of Google Apps for Government. We are looking for talent in cloud, mobile and analytics, and those are big draws for the younger generation.”

Mirroring the Private Sector

Only 25 percent of North Carolina’s IT staff currently report to CIO Chris Estes, but he seeks to consolidate IT into a single agency. One goal of the restructuring is to create a better career path for employees.

“Our IT professionals working in individual agencies find it challenging to move between departments because we are so silo-oriented. They reach a certain level and can’t move up because the CIO has been there for 10 years,” Estes says. “Instead of individual agencies of 20 to 200 IT people, we have to look at it as an enterprise of 2,400 IT people and create more opportunities for people to move between agencies.”

On the recruitment front, Estes is trying to level the playing field with the private sector. While base pay is comparable, the state hasn’t competed on incentive pay. “The general assembly has given us some flexibility to change our human resources provisions, so we are working on a pilot project for our next fiscal year that will include the possibility of incentive pay, project completion incentives and perhaps even signing bonuses.”

Estes also wants to improve tuition benefits for staff, noting that North Carolina companies pay the maximum $5,250 educational assistance allowed per year for an MBA program, while the state program limits employees to $1,765 per semester at schools within the University of North Carolina system. “We are looking at upping our assistance to match the private sector. We think that will help attract employees,” he says. “And as in the private sector, we will have some retention expectations tied to those funds.”

Serving the Public

Internships and cooperative programs with universities may offer the greatest payback.

Elizabeth Kellar, president and CEO of the Center for State and Local Government Excellence, notes that managers now work more closely with community colleges and universities to promote internships and get people in the door. “One of the selling points we have in government is that people can get really passionate about the opportunity to serve the public and make a difference in society,” Kellar says. “Once they get their foot in the door, they get excited about making changes.”

Maine reaches out to teens through annual fairs, complete with pizza and social activities. They give high school students IT problems to work on, such as creating and deleting files, then showing them how to restore them.

“The students get a sense of the risks and challenges of cybersecurity. It is really exciting for them,” Smith says.


Trent Bell, Leonello Calvetti/Getty Images

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