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To attract and retain IT talent, government agencies must embrace new strategies

February 06, 2014

Federal, state and local governments typically embrace IT initiatives far more now than they did a few short years ago. Technology is central to many government efforts, with the recent implementation of the Affordable Care Act perhaps the single most obvious example.

For this and other, future IT projects to prove successful, government agencies must attract and retain high-quality IT talent. However, as Governing Executive Editor Steve Towns highlighted, these organizations are struggling to compete with the private sector in this regard. He asserted that governmental bodies must embrace new strategies to improve their IT staffing efforts.

The government needs IT
Towns pointed out that, in some ways, government bodies' IT staffing needs could be more extreme than they are. Thanks to the rise of cloud computing and other technologies, many IT services can be relatively easily outsourced to third-party solutions providers at a relatively modest cost. This enables the public sector organization to increase its productivity and efficiency without worrying about the quality or extent of its internal IT staff.

However, Towns noted that there are limits to these types of services. Every government agency will inevitably have some IT needs that can only be handled by in-house IT staff, either due to security concerns or other considerations. To meet such needs, these organizations must find ways to attract IT professionals who might otherwise enter the private sector.

The public option
There are a number of ways by which government agencies can go about solving these IT staffing dilemmas, according to Towns.

For example, he noted that today's workers greatly value flexibility at their IT jobs. They want the ability to determine their own schedules, at least to a degree. Additionally, many professionals appreciate the option of telecommuting part-time or full-time. The ability for employees to use their personal smartphones, laptops and other devices for work-related purposes as part of a bring-your-own-device (BYOD) policy is another major consideration for many of today's young IT workers. Towns indicated that government agencies that can enable flexibility in any or all of these areas will be able to better retain and attract IT professionals, while those that cannot may lose workers to the private sector.

Keeping their attention
Another major factor, according to Towns, is whether the work involved is inherently appealing to IT professionals. He acknowledged that government firms are unlikely to be able to match the "cool factor of Silicon Valley tech giants." However, he went on to argue that government IT initiatives can indeed prove interesting and appealing to IT workers. After all, many public sector projects are extremely ambitious and will be attractive to aspiring professionals.

Additionally, government agencies may provide young IT workers with opportunities to take on responsibilities that they could not hope to gain in the private sector without additional years of work.

Towns argued that leaders in the public sector should not be shy about emphasizing these appealing components, as they can help overcome the general reputation that government positions may have for being less dynamic than the private sector.

Heavy competition
Towns' advice for government agencies looking to attract IT talent is particularly valuable now due to the thriving IT jobs market. As numerous reports have highlighted, IT professionals are in high demand, as businesses of all sizes and industries are becoming increasingly dependent on a range of technologies, and they need IT staff to ensure that these systems remain safe, efficient and productive. The unemployment rate among IT workers is consequently far lower than the U.S. average, with no sign that this will change in the near future. IT professionals' options are extremely open and, according to numerous IT staffing experts, more workers will seek new career opportunities in IT this year than last.

This does not mean that government agencies cannot compete with private firms for these individuals. On the contrary, they can benefit from IT workers' efforts to find new employment. But as Towns pointed out, new strategies are undoubtedly necessary to find and retain the most qualified and eager employees.

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