Mar 23 2016

Seattle Retools Its Technology to Attract Younger Workers

As baby boomers retire from public-sector IT departments, state and local governments are revamping their technology to attract a millennial workforce.

If there’s a city that epitomizes the challenge of attracting millennial workers to government, it’s Seattle. When the city goes to hire new employees, it must compete with a multitude of tech companies and startups.

“We can’t pay as much as Amazon, which is 10 blocks from our office,” points out Michael Mattmiller, the city’s chief technology officer.

It’s a problem Seattle tackles head on. “This is why it’s so important that we are mission-driven,” he says. The competitive job market has led the Emerald City to focus its recruiting on what makes working in government unique: the public service and the chance to impact lives. Plus, even new employees will likely get a chance to take part in a bigger technology project than they would in a company, Mattmiller says.

”We can give our employees and recruits the ability to have a broader scope of influence than in the private sector,” he says. “When we bring someone in to do an Office 365 deployment, they’re doing it for an 11,000-seat organization. That's a huge logistical challenge and responsibility we can empower them with.”

The Need to Replace Retiring Workers

Seattle’s challenge, while obvious, isn’t singular. All state and local governments face a two-pronged challenge when it comes to building a modern mobile workforce that can operate effectively: recruiting people and refreshing technology.

On one hand, a surge of retirements has begun — the so-called silver tsunami. AARP reports that nearly 10,000 baby boomers reach retirement age every day. Public-sector IT departments in particular are known to have seasoned employees, and many staffers take their institutional knowledge of legacy systems with them when they exit.

The out-flooding of retiring workers is likely to have a significant impact on government, which — as Seattle so nicely illustrates — must compete with more nimble, higher-paying private-sector companies to recruit and retain talent. Indeed, retention presents a perennial challenge. A 2015 study from the Public Technology Institute noted that 28 percent of city and county IT leaders are highly concerned about the potential of losing significant amounts of staff to private-sector employers over the next year, while another 8 percent of respondents rank their level of concern as “very high.”

Getting Out of the '90s, and Delivering Today's Tech

On top of the talent needs, many states, counties and cities also need to make technology upgrades. Many still use antiquated software or even paper-based reporting systems for documenting inspections, preparing reports and completing other fieldwork. When such tasks need to be performed by offsite workers, it can feel like a trip back to the '90s.

Providing expected technology tools has become important, Mattmiller says. Professionals of all ages demand decent technology now, he says. To that end, Seattle is in the midst of retooling its mobile devices citywide. Device assignments tend to vary depending on a specific program’s needs: Some give workers tablets with proprietary back-end support, while others provide their staffs’ consumer-friendly devices.

It’s the latter that’s getting more attention, especially now that just about everyone is accustomed to using a smartphone or tablet. Mattmiller notes that a firefighter recently remarked to him that it’s faster to look up an address on his own smartphone than on the city-issued GPS unit.

Such situations demonstrate why popular consumer devices are finding their way into government work, with Apple iPad and iPhone devices, Android tablets and Microsoft Surface tablets playing larger roles. Whether tablets and smartphones arrive in offices through bring-your-own-device (BYOD) initiatives or government-procurements, their expanded use heightens the need for optimized software, appropriate security and precise use policies.

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